Fantasy Series- Recommendations

I believe there is a lot of great fantasy books in the world today. As a result I have collected a bunch of my favorites, with this representing the first of two posts. Here are my favorite series, though, in one case, I only like the first book. There are lots of other good books out there (one of my hobby-horses), and these absolutely represent my tastes more than any sort of objective criterion. There are also other series that I think are great and/or read with zeal, and still others that I am sure would appear on many lists of this sort–for instance, Discworld, which I think is merely OK. I have a long to-read list already compiled, but if there are suggestions I will gladly take them.

The Lord of the Rings [plus The Hobbit and The Silmarillion], JRR Tolkien

In many ways this is the Ur-series for the Western fantasy canon, though Tolkien himself was drawing on the Ring Cycle, Beowulf, and a host of other mythological and Romantic influences. Tolkien also set for invention high for all nerds (said affectionately) who built worlds for games, books, or fun. Call them excruciatingly boring, what with the large number of walks taken, and suffering from the drawbacks of the genre such as unnecessary descriptions of stew, there is quite a bit going on in these series. I am of the opinion that recent years have seen a literary-ization of genre fiction that has linked some of the ideas present in the past books with a craft not before seen, but I still love Tolkien for what it was. The world and the series has plenty of issues, including at times blatantly racist overtones and the general (but not complete) absence of strong female characters, but it does have a lot to give back. I also believe that it offers a better entry into this sort of writing for kids than do some of the more complex modern books.

Wheel of Time, Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson)

Another series that I have a soft-spot for having starting reading it in elementary school. It too suffers from a lot of flaws, but also did a lot to drive the genre forward, including that Jordan helped launch the careers of other fantasy authors such as the fellow coming up next on this list. The Wheel of Time can be tropetastic, but that is the nature of the beast, particularly in a genre which usually has the paradigm of a few intrepid individuals holding the darkness at bay, and suffers for being such a sprawling epic. The same sprawl meant that things changed quite dramatically from early on, for natural reasons, for inexplicable reasons when he was still feeling things out, and perhaps for reasons whispered about on internet fan forums. In that way, The Wheel of Time was one of the earliest book series to generate dedicated online communities–and, sadly, one of the reasons for the perpetual fears over authors dying without finishing the books. I haven’t really said anything about the series itself, but I do like a lot of the characters, and it was one of the early series to play with gender dynamics in that the most powerful force in the land are women.

The Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin

Or, as it is known, Game of Thrones. Ultimately, a re-envisioning of the War of the Roses in a medieval fantasy world where, as they say, Winter is Coming. The environment of the series flips between long summers and brutally long winters where there is a chance of the White Walkers, and perhaps cold gods awakening. There is a core struggle for the heroes to save the world from utter oblivion, whether using magic swords, blood, or dragons, but Martin’s protagonists are usually too busy playing politics and pretending to be heroes to actually get around to do anything about the encroaching doom. Actually trying to be a hero is the fastest way to die. He has said that there is going to be a bittersweet ending, so we assume that we will see spring, but the question is how will people put aside their squabbles long enough to fight back.

Kingkiller Chronicles, Pat Rothfuss

This is my favorite series right now, though I have heard several viscerally negative reviews of it. The biggest determinant, I think, is how much a reader likes the main character, Kvothe, because this series very much is about him. Functionally, the series is a story within a story, with Kvothe’s life, which has become the stuff of legend, is being narrated over the course of three days. Each day is a book, and the driving question behind the story is how did the legendary individual, whose exploits are known the world over, become an impotent innkeeper in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Rothfuss’ writing is (in my opinion) beautiful, and I also endorse The Small Regard For Silent Things, a novella written about one of the side characters in the main series.

Dune, Frank Herbert

I nearly put Dune on my list of standalone recommendations because I found the first book to be such a revelation and the subsequent books to be such disappointments. Herbert sets up a galactic civil war between the Baron Harkonnen, supported by the Emperor, and House Atreides, which gets trapped on the desert world of Dune. The story is simultaneously intimate and cosmic in scale, with a messianic main character who may accidentally set in motion a military-religious tsunami that will overwhelm the galaxy.

Tao x3, Wesley Chu

[Lives, Deaths, Afterlives]. Chu’s three book Tao series is an action-romp where the alien Tao and his host Roen Tam try to save the world (and his family) from being turned into a warm primordial soup. I reviewed the first book in the series, and really enjoyed all three. There were times that I thought the later books were sloppier than the first and a little too on the nose about some contemporary issues, but those were slight irritations to what is an incredibly fun set of books that was really easy to blow through.

Mistborn, Brandon Sanderson

When I recommend a Sanderson series, this is the one, in part because it is just a trilogy. There are a lot of things that Sanderson does to tie his entire oeuvre together as part of the larger “Cosmere,” but what is important for this trilogy is that for most people the world consists of endless drudgery, toiling away in factories and farms in a landscape where both urban and rural features are covered in soot, not unlike an extreme version of the industrial revolution. There is also a strict hierarchy between the nobility, who are tall and more athletic and blessed with magic, and the masses, who are stouter, slower, and duller. The entire system is rigidly enforced by the Emperor, who is also the most powerful magic user, and his servants. Yet, Kelsier, a thief, is convinced that he can bring down the Emperor and takes his friends, including the urchin Vin, along for the ride. Except, as you learn, the Emperor is also a lynchpin that holds the system together and the changes were not just arbitrary. Sanderson is particularly known for his magic systems, which, in this case, involves the ingestion and consumption (and other uses) of different metals, each of which corresponds to a particular ability.

The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson

Tentatively placed here, if you are a reader who likes Sanderson’s other books and Robert Jordan, read this. Sanderson is planning the series more than Jordan did, but his writing is similar and this is in many ways his equivalent set of tomes.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi

Technically OMW is the first book in a series, so it is included here. Scalzi’s military science fiction series is set in a future where most people on earth live entirely recognizable lives. However, to solve the third-world population crunch, they are allowed to colonize distant planets–no first-worlders need apply. That is, until you get old. Science allows the mapping of minds onto new, genetically enhanced bodies, so the military has taken to recruiting people with an entire lifetime’s experience, giving them enhanced bodies, and sending them off to fight against alien races. Survivors get set up with a new, un-enhanced body and a position in a colony. Each of the books set in the world, including the two collections of serialized stories that I haven’t yet read, are set in this universe, but told from a different point of view. They are well thought out, snappily-written, and action-packed, as one would expect from Scalzi’s work, and well-worth reading.

Sometime later this week I hope to post the list of stand-alone novels in these genres that I really enjoy. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know what you think I am missing.

What is rebellion for?

How do you get demographics that normally skew toward the Democrats and toward progressive values to buy into Tea Party ideology? Give them a hero who is pithy and dashing whose inner morality is equaled only by his hatred of authority. How do you get the Tea Party to condemn it outright? Set the story in space.

I am kidding, of course, but the best jokes all contain a kernel of truth. Roguish characters, presented as flippant and charismatic, come off well in all sorts of adventure tales, but particularly science fiction and fantasy. Many of these stories also capitalize on the story of a rebellion. But what is the goal of these rebellions? Usually the goal is to replace the extant state with a more liberal, more generous, and less bureaucratic society, although the final goal is practically impossible. I would suggest, though, that there is at least one example of this sort of story where the goal of the rebellion is presented not as the replacement of the government, but by its elimination and that this goal is shortsighted and naive.

Perhaps this realization is an argument against watching these shows while teaching students about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, but I also found this it frustrating for my own enjoyment of the show.

The core story in Star Wars is that one of the Senators perverted the traditional and eternal Republic, corrupted the state religion, and ruled roughly the same territory with an iron fist. He is resisted by a small cadre of Senators and Knights and is eventually overthrown by Maximus Luke Skywalker. Eventually the Rebellion is able to restore a new Republic based on the traditional mores and with the support of the knight-priests who are a force for good in the galaxy. It is cliche to point out the ironies of Star Wars. There are shirts that claim “I had friends on that Death Star. It has been pointed out that the fundamental a small rebellion against a legitimate government funded by old money and with the aid of a robed desert mystic espousing an ancient religion targets government installations.[1] In response to a Wired symposium about the Battle of Hoth Timothy Burke offered the Longue Duree of the Galactic Empire, saying that the Rebellion (and thus focus on Hoth) is treated as a “priviliged mode of dissent” during the empire and suggesting that there would have been nothing remarkable about Hoth except for the charisma of the participants to set it off from other comparable events.[2] For the moment, though, leave aside the Roman parallels, the derivative story, and that books set in the Star Wars universe frequently grapple with many of these issues.

One constant element in Star Wars is that the protagonists do not want to eliminate government. They want to restore the government of yesteryear, which means taking out the guy in charge and whatever government employees continue to support him.[3] The Old Republic is a galactic confederacy, though. There is an elected Senate and a leader of the senate, but, until the rise of Palpatine, there is only a limited executive and basically no military, while sovereign members have their own armed forces that can be used for more than just self defense.[4] The changes made by Palpatine and the threat of a not-yet-defeated Empire mean that the New Republic is closer to an actual Republic than was the old. There is a stronger executive branch and the fleet of the Rebellion remains a standing military force. For the good guys to win in this fantasy they must recreate the government. A government with a standing army (the apparatus of tyranny), a government for the people, and to protect the people from each other and from threats abroad, but a government nonetheless.

Now flash to Joss Whedon’s Firefly. Malcolm Reynolds is your captain. He protects his crew and is an honest businessman. He salvages abandoned goods, is a smuggler, and will kill people, but, while illegal, these actions are not against his personal code of ethics. Mal was a Browncoat, a soldier who fought for the Independence movement against the Alliance, an exploitative, totalitarian bureaucratic and military establishment. From his point of view, the Alliance crushes the individual and tries to bend the population of the galaxy to civilization. Mal and his fellow Browncoats were defeated and he goes further out to the fringes of the settled world so that he can be free of the government. In the original pilot Mal goes so far as to state: “that’s what governments are for… get in a man’s way.”

One trope of the space shows and movies, much like it is in the Western genre, is to explore what happens to people beyond the reach of central governments or when governments collapse, or what happens when a central government encroaches upon anarchy muted by inchoate forms of society. In Deadwood there is interest in joining the United States. Dune has a galactic kingdom where the government rules by restricting access to resources, balancing out competing interests, and an elite Janissary force. Star Trek has multiple galactic entities with different levels of bellicosity and cooperation. Ender’s Game has military cooperation among humans to destroy an alien race that once threatened Earth. Old Man’s War has genetically modified soldiers to protect space colonies that alleviate the population stresses in third world areas of Earth. But one constant is that there is some necessity for government.

In Firefly, though, there is government. There are both local and central governments, but governments are universally described as a hindrance to ordinary people. Mal’s worldview is that everyone would be a lot better off without government. An inner morality, or people with an inner morality and guns, will ensure that the galaxy will be a place of opportunity for everyone. Except that the majority of people Mal interacts with have guns, but they do not have the same inner morality he does. His quick wits and true aim ensure that he is able to dispatch malignants and protect his crew, as well as being able to limit the conflicts of interest between individual crew members, but the general populace is not so fortunate.

The crew of Serenity accept Mal as their employer and passengers respect him as the captain. The crew and the passengers work together to survive [5] and Mal’s sovereignty is certainly more benevolent and human than is the bureaucracy of the Alliance. But, if civilization crushes the identity of an individual, liberty constantly threatens to kill him.[6] Most people are not the hero. Most people need the protection offered by civilization.

I like Mal and I enjoy the show. My issue is this: the government supplies necessary goods and creates the very terra-formed worlds on which people live. The galaxy the show is set in has both extreme, subhuman anarchy (Reavers) and more limited human corruption sprung up from violence, hardship, greed, ambition, avarice, etc, but the leader of the heroes, himself both a present and past holder of command positions, detests government. The Alliance does not come across well in the show, but the proposed solution is an extension of anarchy rather than the reform the government.[7] The Alliance has its issues, but even in the show it is presented as having benefits, whatever Mal might say.

Fiction in general and science fiction and fantasy stories in particular allow people to vicariously live out otherwise impossible fantasies of all sorts. Sexual and violent fantasies may be lived out in a safe environment [8] and, likewise, rebellious fantasies can be lived out in a safe place. The curious thing to me is that most of these instances presuppose that the rebellious fantasy is meant to improve government, to fix what is wrong with the state. Firefly, at least in the show, seems to be the exception. In this instance there is rebellion because all government is irredeemably bad.


[1] Against a dictator who had been granted extraordinary powers in a time of crisis. He never relinquished them, but, technically, they were bestowed upon him by the legitimate government. We as an audience know that he manufactures the crisis and goes on to commit plenty of other atrocities, but, if I remember correctly, the given reason for the Jedi attacking him is that he is a Sith and therefore evil. If one does not subscribe to polarities of human alignment as posited in fantasy and role-playing tropes, then the Jedi were way out of line and Palpy was justified in banning them. Killing the kids was stepping over the line, but that hasn’t stopped the US drone program from doing the same. The big difference there is that I don’t think Joe Biden is trained for that sort of job.

[2] Be that as it may, charisma of the participants will get them into the movies and the history books alike.

[3] Plus collateral damage, but working for an evil guy makes one complicit.

[4] The workings of government oversight, travel, and intragalactic relations seem more reasonably fleshed out in both Star Trek and Dune. Of course, I was never a trekkie and some of the coherence of Dune is in its very limited scope in the early books.

[5] Mal and the crew also see an uptick in random bullet wounds after getting a doctor. Perhaps safety makes them reckless, perhaps there is a sloppy-yet-all-powerful narrator.

[6] Another trope is that there must be danger and an absence of laws for a person to reach his or her full potential. But another precondition also exists–the natural ability of that individual. Even then, the absence of law is an opportunity to excel, not a surety. Further, it is the except that a hero is capable of exceling without doing so at the expense of others, [6a] as happens in The Name of the Wind as far as the story has progressed, although we know that Kvothe feels that his actions caused suffering for everyone. Even in The Hobbit, Bilbo the burglar benefits at the expense of Gollum/Smeagol, a character who is not per se evil. Strong personal morality helps and it is necessary that the ambitions of the exceptional hero be personal: get home, remedy a specific injustice, or combat true evil. [6b] When the exceptional character extends those ambitions or even has to expand the scope to remedy injustice, he becomes a Mr. Kurtz or a Paul Atreides. His personal capabilities, whether intentional or not, result in his oppression of others.

[6a] The others here being defined as bystanders or otherwise innocent people, not jerks, punks, or people are trying to put down the common man.

[6b] True evil, of the sort that appears in stories that are in some way descended Christian of Gnostic (etc. etc.) concepts about the perfect goodness above and the perfect badness below, or vice versa that construct the realm of human existence a middle arena, a locus of competition between the two extremes. True evil, irredeemable evil exists in these setups because creatures (only rarely human) actually manifest themselves in the existence. People toss the concept of evil about in reference to humans in order to explain all sorts of “evil” (vicious, cruel, malicious) or “sinful” actions. On one hand, some of these labels are borne of constructed moralities, on the other, “evil” may be the product of upbringing, abuse, mental or chemical imbalances. The case can be made that a Sauron or Balrog is evil by nature, not by choice and therefore people who have mental imbalance or are the product of abuse are not excused for not having control over their evil, but this, too, is a constructed morality. It is more accurate to suggest that actions, not people, are evil.

[7] Until, arguably, Serenity.

[8] The debate about video games such as Grand Theft Auto causing rape and violence notwithstanding. There probably is some link between the two, particularly for people who already have some other issues, while the majority of people can play violent video games without lashing out at the people around them. Now, if it is possible to link the popularity of violent video games, violent movies and tv shows, the large numbers of guns as part of a “violent American culture,” then you might be on to something.