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.

Fantasy Literature: depression and globalism.

The whole point of speculative fiction is that it provides an opportunity to mull over ideas, concerns, concepts, and issues, while, hopefully, telling a compelling story along the way–whether that compulsion is light, grave, suspenseful, or terrifying. As Brandon Sanderson’s character Hoid says in The Way of Kings: “The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”

There are dozens of ways in which these stories can be parsed and mulled over, in the same way that any literary criticism can function, but there are two I’ve been thinking about recently: depression and globalism.

Heroes in epic fantasy are depressed, sometimes. Usually when they are bummed because something did not go their way, but there is no time for wallowing when the fate of the world hangs in the balance. There are things to be done, and a hero is a man or woman of action. If the wallowing goes on too long, a character of greater gravitas, usually someone older but reliant on their wisdom or empathy with the hero to save the world because the hero is fated or “more powerful,” comes along to slap the hero out of whatever funk they are in. Else, something happens to snap the hero out of their funk and get back to doing whatever it is that needs doing. That is just the proper way for things to happen. As Sam and Frodo march headlong toward Mount Doom, they despair of pulling through, but they are not depressed. The trope is that the characters despair and then soldier on against the odds.

There is something told to depressed people as a truism: nobody wants to hear about or spend time with someone who is a sullen downer. People like to be happy and energetic and someone suffering with depression sucks the air out of the room. This idea is used to great effect when a loved one has died and the characters mope about to demonstrate their sadness, and then they die or someone snaps them out of it. There are exceptions, of course, but this is the standard trope.

The second trope is that the powers beyond mortal reckoning that the characters dabble in break the mind of the characters. Most of the time these people are incapable of going on and must either be cared for, die, or become non-entities. Remember, the hero must be an active agent.

Just this evening I finished reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a story that is part of the same world of his Kingkiller Chronicles, but a non-traditional story featuring Auri, one of the side characters. Auri is introduced in the series as someone who, to be blunt, cracked while studying at the university and is therefore accounted one of the strange curiosities who inhabit the area. Those who are not locked away for their one safety know deep secrets about the world, but aren’t fit to live among humans. Auri is one such. The story is beautiful and haunting, but there was one situation that leapt out to me and, likely, to anybody who (as Pat put it in his author’s note) is a little bit broken. It is a scene where this beautiful, delicate, considerate, kind, and wise creature experiences the world turned upside down. Nothing is right and nothing can be right, regardless of how hard she may wish it was.

Auri is lonely and happy most of the time in the story and a singular panic attack does not sound like a typical experience with depression, but the frame of the story rang true. Being a depressed–as distinct from a despairing or weary–character need not be presented as simply sulking or moping until being set straight. When the world becomes wrong, it isn’t just sadness that arrives, but a panic, and there is an exhaustion in spending energy keeping the world right. Depression and functionality are not mutually exclusive, depression just makes it harder.

[In retrospect, I link depression and anxiety issues here. I grapple with both and find them two sides of the same coin.]

One of the features of epic fantasy that has always attracted me is the world-building or universe creation…something which literature of a more limited, local variety simply doesn’t have to grapple with–particularly in historical settings where the interconnected baggage has been already established. A lot of the time, these issues never feature into the stories being told because the events do not have global cache. Series such as George RR Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time have more fleshed out places beyond the immediate setting and have added in global connections accordingly, if incompletely. Jordan’s world, in particular, lets most of the connections between continents or parts of continents fall to outsider-intermediaries and allows that most of these places have fallen into obscure legends. The connections are there, but they are particularly scant. In contrast, Martin’s setting consists of fractured micro-regions, large swathes of which have been reduced to ruin, that it is possible to traverse between if properly supplied or if willing to stop off at nodes in order to change ships.

Other authors have used other approaches. CS Lewis’ Narnia has an edge that leads to God’s kingdom (Voyage of the Dawn Treader), marked as it is by a sea of white lilies. That book bears striking resemblance to the Odyssey, among other things, as well. In contrast, Pratchett’s irreverent Discworld is a disc balanced on the backs of four elephants which stand on the back of a giant turtle. I haven’t really read enough of either or done so recently enough to comment on the internal workings of these worlds, but both take place in a set, confined space. Something along these same lines can also be said about the immediate kingdom that is the setting for Sanderson’s Mistborn, where there may be more out there, but one is led to believe that the kingdom is the extent of the world.

Of course, the setting that set me down this line of thought was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The reason for this is that there is both the setting of The Lord of the Rings, with its distinctive shape for anyone familiar with fantasy maps, and also for The Silmarillion, which weaves in folklore and historical elements to tell the story of the world from its creation through the Third Age and the start of the Fourth. Along the way, the realm of the gods (and elves) is severed from the realm of mankind when the parallel Atlantis falls. Tolkien also hints at places found on no maps, including the lands in the south with exotic-looking humans. To that same effect, human beings enter into his story when they stumble out of uncivilized land somewhere off the map. The world is bigger than what is revealed and what is fleshed out in his stories. I find it ironic that Tolkien is credited with launching the use of such rich world-building in fantasy when so much of his world is literally terra incognita.

Though developments like the internet have heralded a new sort of globalization since Tolkien wrote, it is foolish to say that he wrote in an age before global considerations–he was born in South Africa, after all, and came of age in England during the waning days of the British Empire. Perhaps, though, more leisure time and more opportunity for long-distance interactive communication has resulted in books being picked over in ways never before imaginable.

Worlds have names. Rothfuss’ world is known as “Temerant,” though there is a line between naming a world and having the characters themselves know the name of the world (particularly when one of the key ideas in the series is the power of names). Authors have also done wonders when it comes to subverting tropes, such as in Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon where the setting is middle eastern, with an old, out of shape hero. I love all of these books and, at some level, the world building has to remain incomplete because the world itself is a sandbox in which to tell stories. However, tropes remain. The worlds contain ruins of long-dead, glorious civilizations and, often, there is either too much of a monoculture or a variety of cultures whose practices and societies are so radically different that it is as though they were created in a vacuum and then placed side by side.

I like textured worlds that feel deep and lived-in and I like stories that provide issues to think about–something that good fantasy is adept at precisely because the constraints of the real world are lifted. But I believe it is misleading to say that a global, interconnected world is solely a product of the modern age–when I teach students about the ancient world I try to show that every culture is part of a larger system. What has changed about globalism, to my mind, is that as production and consumption are more intimately and immediately linked–i.e. as the world has shrunk–people have become more concerned about their place in the system. Issues that have really always existed concerning immigration, jobs, allocation of resources and capital, etc., have become more immediately present in public discourse, rather than the shipping of gold to India being a complaint that only a few Romans were aware of or concerned about. Creating a premodern world should not be an excuse to avoid these questions, particularly when the world itself becomes foregrounded in the course of a series. Epic fantasy grapples with issues, but nostalgic elements of epic fantasy are often used to avoid thinking about issues of globalization rather than wrapping them into the world in provocative ways.

My favorite Character in a Song of Ice and Fire (spoilers)

I started reading George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series in middle school–I recall reading book 2 while sitting in a tree at one point– and have kept up with it for a long decade and a half at this point. I was and remain a dedicated northerner, somewhere between a Stark and an Umber, I sympathized with Jon Snow, liked Arya Stark, and connected the most with Ned Stark. I still like these characters and have developed affection for other characters in subsequent books, but of the characters who have survived from the first book to the most recent, the one I find most interesting is one who I hated (as GRRM surely intended) at the outset: Jaime Lannister.

The reason I find him so interesting is that, when he is first introduced, he is arrogant, insolent, and really all you know is that he is a good fighter and he is sleeping with his sister. The impression you are left with is that Jaime is a bit of a dunce and a jock. Tyrion is the brains in the family, and it is certainly true that, compared with Tyrion, Jaime is a dunce. But, then, most of the characters in the series are. Once you get inside Jaime’s head, though, the story starts to change.

I do not believe that Jaime is actually stupid at any point in the series, but his intelligence is masked because he lacks ambition or the need to do anything differently. When you meet him in the first book, he has exactly two goals in life: to be the greatest swordsman in the world and to screw his sister. He is the former, through innate ability and training, and with his sister being queen he gets the latter. His life is straightforward and simple and he doesn’t need to be or do anything else. When he loses his hand, things begin change because he is forced to adapt. He still isn’t a genius, but he isn’t a dunce, getting by on a combination of skill and reputation. At the same time he has particular recollections of the generation of heroic warriors who accepted him into their brotherhood when he was a teenager and who those people were.

Other characters are nicer and there are others who I connect with more or who I would characterize as my favorite in a given book, but there is no character around for more than half of the books who I find as interesting. That is why Jaime Lannister is my favorite character in the series.