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.

The Hobbit: a review (Spoilers for both movie and book)

Perhaps I am reaching a point in my life when a simple chase scene no longer appeals to me, but one of the starkest thoughts I had while watching Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was “wow. Those goblins have some impressive logistical ability; why can’t the dwarves recognize that infrastructure?” I had this thought just after the dwarves had been captured by goblins in the Misty Mountains. They had been taken before the large goblin in a massive open cavern lit by hundreds of torches and some chandeliers of torches suspended from the top of the cave, hung over several stories of pit. Of course, it was all for visual effect and I am sure that Jackson gave no thought to the logistics of the undertaking on a regular basis–the torches only had to be lit for the shoot…unless they were CGI.1 Nonetheless, I was curious. But more on that scene later.

Overall, Jackson did a remarkably thorough job at capturing the bulk of the Hobbit, the accumulated mythology of Middle Earth as created by Tolkien, and matching the story with his Lord of the Rings movies. Admittedly, though, these multiple threads made for a rather different movie than the original book. I had minor qualms with the movie, but unlike with the Fellowship movie where I had very specific issues and solutions, in the Hobbit I could only shrug at the issues and concede that I had no feasible or readily available solution.2 The deviation from the book tended to be in the hope of simplification or, often, because Jackson stitched together so many disparate parts and needed a way to compress and unify the story into one narrative–or several narratives closely enough aligned that they could fit into the same movie. In light of this, I found surprisingly little Peter Jackson bloat–scenes that served little narrative purpose (though there were certainly some that could be been compressed). yes, the complaint may be made that while everyone enjoys walking about in New Zealand, there is only so much that one can take. I may be a wanderer (peregrinans) at heart, but I thought there was only one truly excessive walking scene. The others were just transition scenes and fit the actual story well enough. The three hour time –and even the three movies–actually fits what Jackson is doing, that is, using the extra material provided by Tolkien to give a prequel to the Lord of the Rings in its fullest sense. Thus, he makes little distinction between the rise of Sauron at Dol Guldor, the quest of Thorin Oakenshield to rid the Lonely Mountain of Smaug and the in-fighting of the White Council, while using the story of the Hobbit as a narrative backbone for the larger tale–not unlike what Tolkien did. So far, the movie itself may not measure up to the first three, but it is more thorough and thus (in some ways) more satisfactory.

There were issues, though. Specifically, I had problems with one fight scene, two chase scenes, and one hazardous mountain pass. I will not bother with what I described above as efforts to stitch the stories together, though I will also note several lapses that might have been worth including.

One of the ways that Tolkien sets the stage for his story is that the dwarves each are wearing distinctively colored cloaks when they arrive at Bag End and all are without weapon. Jackson likewise sets his story by their arrival, though most of his dwarves are armed. One reviewere lamented that this undercut the original story by making the dwarves into stalwart warriors. While I do feel this change (and lack of cloaks) diminished the story just a bit, it also served to alert the viewer that this story is a legitimate prequel to the Lord of the Rings, so, of course they would be armed. Jackson did also pay homage to this by drawing distinction between the several warriors in the party while drawing attention to the motley nature of the rest of the dwarves.

The first scene that felt distinctly out of place (and one of the few that did) was a scene where Gandalf uses the excuse of being chased by Wargs to trick Thorin into going to Rivendell. From a broad scope of the revised narrative it did offer a chance to make Thorin and the party chased from the beginning, but it was also drawn out (including (in my opinion) gratuitous scenes of Radagast and his ridiculous bunny-sleigh). Still, I don’t really have an alternative solution…it just seemed wrong.

The second scene, that of the storm giants, was one of the few bloated scenes that went from a minor passage in the book to an exciting scene fraught with danger. This one felt like Jackson had a new toy and wanted to make use of it. Certainly, it was a nice inclusion since it covers about a page in the book, but to make such a big deal out of it was overkill.

The second chase that bothered me was the escape from the goblin cave. In the book it is a frenetic escape in the dark through cut caves. In the movie those hundreds of torches suspended above scaffolding provide more opportunities for cinematography, but I felt as though I was watching a video game level where you have to hit the right levers as you run through it. Yes, Tolkien could do as an author many things that Jackson can’t as a director, but this scene felt overdone to the point of cheesiness.

Before pointing out the climactic scene that bothered me, let me say that Jackson missed an opportunity after that chase. He has Thorin go on a rant about the useless hobbit only to have Bilbo step out and shame him. In the book, though, the dwarves are amazed that Bilbo is alive and gain respect for his as a burglar when he explains how he got past the goblins. The movie worked well enough, but it took another act for Thorin to truly appreciate him. That last act brings me to the final scene that bothered me. In the book, the dwarves, Gandalf, and Bilbo are chased up trees (okay, so far, so good), only to have the goblins attempt to burn them out and a rescue by eagles. But, in the movie, there had to be another fight scene, so when the party is chased up the trees, they throw lit pine cones at the wargs and then, seemingly as a last resort, Thorin goes out to confront his nemesis, only to be saved by…Bilbo? Bilbo’s bravery is what endears him to Thorin. As before, this scene felt unnecessary–as though there needed to be a climax to set us up for part two. This also took something away from Bilbo the burglar, but , once again, the scene was not so much dissonant with Peter Jackson’s Hobbit as with Tolkien’s original.

On the whole the movie was enjoyable and no less because I needed an afternoon distraction when I watched it. My biggest problem with it is a problem with the medium more than with this particular movie. Peter Jackson did a pretty good job with the Hobbit both as a film and a dedication to Tolkien’s original, but it was still a collaboration of Jackson, the actors, etc, interacting with and putting on an interpretation of Tolkien’s world, after which it is relayed to the rest of the world for our consumption. The viewers of the film have little interaction with the story besides being passive recipients. When I read The Hobbit as a book and then seek out the additional material it becomes an interaction between me as the reader and the world created by Tolkien. To a great extent, it is the same reason that I dislike the Game of Thrones tv show–and why I have decided that I will not see any more movies made out of books I like. To put out a viable movie or tv show based on a book is to corrupt that book. Peter Jackson did a good job with his interpretation, but, at the end of the day, I feel as a viewer and as a reader that, somehow, I should have been more involved in conjuring up the story.

1 In Tolkien’s version, the scene takes place in a much more dimly lit cavern and most of the subsequent chase takes place in the dark.
2In part, though, I know the story less well.

Assorted links

  1. Chilean Rebel Camila Vallejo– A profile in the Guardian of Camila Vallejo, a student radical who led student strikes that cancelled much of the academic year. She began by demanding free education (most students do not get a free high school education and college costs around 3,400 dollars in a country where the average salary is 8,500 dollars. The strikes were met with violence and, it is reported, sexual abuse of students. She has since decided that there is an underlying structural problem in the country, believing that there has not been enough change since the days of Pinochet.
  2. Congo’s Eastern Crisis– A story in the Economist about a province of the Congo perhaps leaving the country after rebel forces took the town of Goma–while UN peacekeepers watched.
  3. ”Being Tolkien’s grandson blocked my writing…”– an interview with Simon Tolkien, J.R.R.’s grandson, on the Guardian. The article is a series of thoughts and comments about the author, particularly that J.R.R. was upset that the Silmarillion was deemed unpublishable.
  4. Let Women Fight– An article (available for a limited time only) in Foreign Affairs about lifting the ban on women in combat situations.
  5. Norway bans zombie advert from daytime TV– A sporting goods company stopped airing an advertisement during the day that features a zombie attack on a suburban neighborhood after viewers complained that it was stupid and provocative.

Assorted Links

  1. Tolkien and Technology-Commented on by Chad, this is an article in the Atlantic about one of Tolkien’s most enduring legacies to fantasy literature, namely the fear and disdain of technology.
  2. Remote-Scanning Techniques Revolutionize Archaeology-An article in der Spiegel about some of the new technology (like flying lasers) that are helping to uncover archeological sites in remote or otherwise veiled locations without needing to embark upon expensive digs.
  3. First Female, Saudi Arabian Olympians-Some photos on The Atlantic commemorating the first female Olympians in that country’s history.
  4. What do we mean by “evil”-some discussion of the Aurora shooting and how people have labelled James Holmes as “evil.” The author points out that evil is really the only word we have, but that it is a word that says “more about the helplessness of the accuser than it does the transgressor.”
  5. How the Gorgeous, Sometimes Fictional Sound of the Olympics Gets Made-Adding to the spectacle of the Olympics, there are the sounds. I suspect that this sort of manipulation of sounds is more common than we might think, but the huge array of different sounds that are traditionally associated with Olympic sports adds a bit more pomp to the coverage.
  6. Ivory Coast Leader Foresees Mali Intervention Soon-Not soon enough, in my opinion, and the intervention requires approval from the U.N. Security Council, but the ECOWAS has obtained Malian permission for the intervention. This is a response to the Islamic fundamentalists who have taken over most of the country and begun demolishing UNESCO sites (which I doubt is actually the immediate impetus). Hopefully it won’t devolve further.
  7. Mississippi Church Rejects Black Wedding-The church in question was founded in 1883 and has never married anyone who is black; despite the prior registration for the wedding, the congregation decided to upholding its grand tradition and prevent the marriage. The pastor agreed because he feared for his job if he proceeded with the wedding.
  8. Orangutan Sent to Island to Kick Smoking Habit-A zoo in Indonesia is sending their heavy smoking Orangutan to an island in a lake at the zoo along with another Orangutan who is known for stamping out butts rather than smoking them.
  9. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?