The more lists I make, the more I realize that I haven’t read anything.
I used to proclaim that I loved fantasy books, that I was a hardcore fantasy fanboy. But now I’ve realized that I haven’t read most of what are considered the best of the genre. The Malazan series, the Earthsea Saga, the Mistborn trilogy, the Dark Tower series, the list goes on and on. I’m actually really disappointed in myself.
Don’t get me wrong; I do love fantasy. It’s an incredible show of imagination and an impressive exercise in logic. You not only have to create an immersive world that feels real and tangible, but also have to apply consistent internal logic to all of the rules of magic and politics and everything else you’ve made up or the whole thing might fall apart. Of course, crafting compelling characters and an intriguing plot is a given.
And above all else, it’s just so much goddamn fun.
Here are some of my favorites.
The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher
Harry Dresden is a private investigator located in Chicago. He’s also happens to be a wizard; it says so right there on his ad in the yellow pages. He handles everything from missing items to paranormal phenomena (no requests for love potions or parties, please) and will hopefully keep from burning down a building in the process.
This is probably my favorite ongoing series right now. There are 15 books published so far out of a planned 26 or so. I started reading when there were 12 and every time a new book came out, I would reread all of the previous books first to refresh my memory. Yes, I like this series that much.
I don’t know which aspect of The Dresden Files makes me like it so much. Maybe it’s the characters that develop throughout the books as traumatic events actually affect their psyche and force them to adapt, shift their priorities, even compromise their values. No character is simple nor are they immune to temptation into darkness.
Or maybe it’s the world building. The rules of magic are consistent and new applications don’t seem shoehorned in, but a natural progression of Harry’s growing power and knowledge. His increase in strength also draws the interest of more powerful beings as the series goes on, forcing him to use all of his wits and skill to survive. Not to mention that Jim Butcher manages to make not only vampires but also fairies fucking terrifying.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the prose is not high level literature like perhaps The Lord of the Rings. Especially in the first couple of books when Butcher’s writing skills were still developing.
But who cares? It’s entertaining as hell and trust me, you’ll end up impatiently waiting for the next book to come out, just like I am.
The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
Speaking of books that have yet to come out, the last book in this trilogy has been 5 years in the making and it’s driving fans almost as mad as those awaiting the next installment of the ASOIF series.
So it’s a good thing I’ve only read the first book so far. That frustration of not being able to read the next book hasn’t affected me yet.
Jokes aside, The Name of the Wind, the first in the trilogy, is fascinating in that it acts more as a character piece than a story of epic proportions. Don’t get me wrong; the world-building is great, the magic exciting, and there’s plenty of action. But the focus of the series is to breathe life into the main character, Kvothe.
Kvothe is a living legend. He’s amassed a variety of names throughout the years. Kvothe the Bloodless. Lightfinger. Reshi. Kingkiller. But nobody knows what is truth what is mere myth. And so when the Chronicler finds him and urges him to finally set the record straight, Kvothe begins to tell the tale of how he came to be.
It seems like the classic story of “the hero’s journey.” However, it subverts the cliche by acknowledging that Kvothe already is the hero and showing us that the road is not as clear-cut as we’d been led to believe. The Name of the Wind is masterfully written and I really need to get going on that second book.
(Also, you should read Patrick Rothfuss’s review of Skin Game, the latest book of the Dresden Files. Don’t worry, it’s completely spoiler-free. I just wanted to show that I’m not the only one obsessed with it. Okay, I’m done gushing.)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Before you say anything, no, just because a book takes place in space does not mean that it’s science fiction. I think that having spaceships powered by improbability, articulate cows that want to be eaten, and the ability to fly by simply throwing yourself at the ground and missing, pushes this into fantasy territory.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let me get into the story.
Moments before Earth is destroyed in order to make way for hyperspace bypass, Arthur Dent is whisked off of the planet by his best friend, Ford Prefect, who actually happens to be a humanoid alien. Ford is also a journalist for the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a guidebook packed with information on how to survive while traveling among the stars. The duo narrowly escapes death and hitches a ride with the President of the Galaxy, who agrees to try to find a replacement Earth. And then…well, a whole bunch of other weird shit happens.
It’s difficult to describe the plot because 1) it goes all over the place and has many random digressions and 2) it doesn’t really matter. The plot is just an excuse for Douglas Adams to write about the most ridiculous things while including some biting satire. It is absolutely hysterical. This is hands down one of the funniest books that I have ever read and it actually changed the face of comic fantasy. As in, nobody was able to write anything remotely close to the bar that Adams set until perhaps Terry Pratchett came along.
On every “Read a Goddamn Book” post, I think there has always been one book where I would write “If you’re going to read one book from this list, read this one.” This is that book. I love all of the other books on this list, but I also know that some people aren’t into fantasy. And that’s fine. But Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a freaking masterpiece that I’m willing to bet anybody will love.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Because no fantasy list is complete without The Lord of the Rings.
Do I really need to write a synopsis? I mean, c’mon. It’s The Lord of the Rings.
There’s an old, dark power that’s starting to once again gain strength in Middle-earth. The only way to defeat it once and for all is to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, a volcano at the heart of the Dark Lord Sauron’s evil realm. We follow the journey of a hobbit in his quest to destroy the Ring with the help of various allies.
It’s a shitty synopsis, but whatever. It’s a classic fantasy novel, if not the classic fantasy novel, so shame on you if you don’t know, even roughly, what it’s about.
Honestly, I don’t know how to start talking about this book. I could talk about how it was literally the catalyst for popularizing fantasy fiction and pushed the genre into the mainstream audience. Almost every instance of high fantasy after the publication of The Lord of the Rings has been influenced by it. Tolkienesque is a real word in the Oxford English Dictionary, for heaven’s sake.
Or I could talk about how not only did Tolkien create an amazing, vivid world with dragons, elves, dwarves, and wizards, but he also created history for his imaginary world. He constructed myths, built civilizations, developed cultures, and invented multiple languages. (No joke, you can learn elvish online. Not only that, there are two different dialects. It’s insane.) The appendices are ridiculously long and even without reading them, you can see the rich untold backstory bleed through into the book itself.
But those things, while they show the wide-reaching influence of The Lord of the Rings and the technical mastery that went into writing it, don’t tell you how good the book is, does it?
So let me tell you right now. It’s really fucking good.
Anybody who says that because it’s fantasy, it can’t be literature can go suck it. The prose is beautiful and evocative, the themes are powerful and stimulating, and the plot is classic, yet exciting. It’s lasted throughout the decades for reason. I’ve said this too many times, but The Lord of the Rings is a goddamn masterpiece.
If you think it’s too long, think of it as six separate books like Tolkien originally intended it to be. And no, nobody will blame you if you skip the songs or even some of the longer descriptions. I think that they add to the story, but I understand if you find them boring. I’ve skipped some of them on rereads myself. That doesn’t mean that it’s not an amazing read.
Also, if you haven’t watched the movies, do yourself a favor and go watch them. I’m not even talking about the extended editions, just the theatrical versions. They are fantastic.
Honorable Mentions: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I actually meant to include this on the list, but I kind of got carried away with the others and wrote too much. Needless to say, if you’ve read all of the above, anything by Neil Gaiman would be my next recommendation. Codex Alera Series by Jim Butcher. Because it’s Jim Butcher. The First Law Series by Joe Abercrombie. I love how this author twists fantasy tropes around completely.
What I Want to Read Next: Stormlight Archives by Brandon Sanderson. I actually bought the first book in the series, The Way of Kings, so I plan to read this very soon.
Reflection: I promised not to write as much…yeah, what bullshit. I’m sorry, I just got really excited while writing about these books. I think I showed that even if I haven’t read too much fantasy, I really do love the genre. Also, starting this list is what fueled me to buy The Way of Kings, so I think it has had a good impact on me as well. I just hope that through these lists, I’m encouraging others to read something that they normally wouldn’t. I think you’d be surprised at what you enjoy.
Also, for those who are surprised/angry that I didn’t put Harry Potter anywhere, well…I’m not going to put them on any list. Not because I don’t love them, because I do. I’ve read each of the books at least a dozen times. But I feel like they’re such a given, I don’t have anything to write about them. Other than that the movies suck and the 8th “book” is a sham. So yeah, not going to appear on any of my lists.
Another group of you will be surprised/angry that A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin isn’t on this list. That’s because that series doesn’t deserve to be on it. The first book was good, the second was okay, the third one was great, the fourth and fifth books were so boring I hardly remember anything about them. I’ll probably read the next one if it ever gets written just because I want to finish it, but I wouldn’t recommend them to anyone. I love the HBO series though. Just my opinion.
Whew, this was rather longer than my other list, wasn’t it? I think my next reading recommendation list will be a bit shorter, but no promises. I’ll be going back to my roots and talking about some children’s books that I loved and are worth a reread, even as an adult. Tune in again soon!