In the last few weeks I’ve been asked by a couple of lovely people for recommended reading in fantasy and science fiction. My only qualification is that I have read so much in these genres over the last [redacted] decades that my opinions are based on vast experience, but here goes.
All fiction is, to some extent, fantasy. Neil Gaiman said so and he is absolutely right, but my working definition is that Fantasy, as a genre, is fiction which depends on things which can’t be fitted into the rationalist materialist world-view. Science Fiction and Fantasy overlap considerably but the best SF (e.g. The Water Knife) is driven by its science whereas the best fantasy is driven by myths and archetypes. I’m not going to discuss SF as such here except to say that some stories which look like SF are really Fantasy; the first half-dozen of the Dragons of Pern series come to mind.
A few general points first …
I’m not going to mention a book or series by name unless it’s one I recommend. That saves me from saying “this is a good book” every time and it saves you from even hearing about bad books.
Inline links are (unless otherwise noted) to my own reviews, most of them very short, here or on Green Path.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism but I do prefer fiction which provides insights into ourselves or the way we live. I’ve said elsewhere that SF is brilliant for thought-experiments, but so is fantasy.
A strong book from a strong writer is best, a weaker book from a strong writer is usually still okay and a strong book from a weak writer is rare, so following the strong writers is a good strategy.
A good book for younger readers is a good book, in my opinion, and I still read and recommend them.
The current fashion is for multi-volume fantasy; stand-alone novels are quite rare. Sadly, few authors have the focus and imaginative power to make their sagas worthwhile, and what I will call “Series Rot” sets in: Book 1 is great, Book 2 is okay, Book 3 is good and pulls together the stories begun in Book 1, Book 4 is an afterthought, and Books 5 and beyond are pot-boilers. Exceptions to the rule are generally stand-alone books set in the same imagined world (e.g. Discworld) rather than continuations of a single story.
A lot of recent fantasy is set in a generic pre-industrial (often feudal) world. Why? Probably because it reduces the world-creating burden on both the writer and the reader. I find that dull, although it doesn’t always mean that the book is dull.
Writers to follow
Neil Gaiman is now, in my opinion, the greatest living fantasy writer in English. I reviewed his Coraline here but it’s not necessarily the best introduction to his very varied work.
Terry Pratchett passed away recently after gifting us the greatest collection of satirical fantasy we’re likely to see. My introduction to his Discworld is the previous post on this blog.
Ursula Le Guin wrote both SF and Fantasy but it was all equally characterised by a profound humanity. Her Earthsea series began as a trilogy for young readers but grew into something much deeper when she revisited the world years later. If you don’t mind a young protagonist, it’s a good introduction to her work. Otherwise, start anywhere – perhaps with the feminist classic, The Left Hand of Darkness. I love Always Coming Home but I have to say it’s not as approachable as most of her work.
Jeanette Winterson will usually be found on the literary fiction shelf rather the F & SF shelf but many of her books are fantasy and all of them are brilliant. I reviewed The Stone Gods here.
The work of some of these gentlemen (and they are all men, and in fact all English) is still well worth reading although I found Lewis and White disappointing when I looked at some of their books recently.
- Tolkien, of course; he kick-started the whole genre, or brought it back from obscurity, with The Lord of the Rings.
- C.S. Lewis was a friend and colleague of Tolkien and is best known for Narnia.
- T.H. White is known for The Once and Future King, a retelling of the Arthurian cycle. The Sword in the Stone is its first volume.
- Alan Garner, an English writer of the 1960s and 70s (read more about him on Wikipedia). Most of his books are for young readers but the Stone Book Quartet is primarily for adults. (P.S. Treacle Walker review added Jan 2023)
- Mervyn Peake didn’t write much other than Gormenghast (official site), but that trilogy is weirdly brilliant.
Very good fantasy by people who haven’t written much, or write (wrote, in some cases) mainly in other genres.
Erin Morgenstern: The Night Circus. An outstanding debut novel.
Kathleen Jennings: Flyaway. Very Australian but with deep roots in European myth. (Reviewed on Readings)
Lian Hearn burst onto the scene with Across the Nightingale Floor and its (originally two) sequels, set in Japan around 1600, which makes its setting feudal and pre-industrial but exotic. Series Rot sets in after book 3 but the first three are so good they need to be mentioned. Here’s the author’s blog post about the origins of the series.
Barry Hughart: Bridge of Birds and its sequels. Outrageously inventive spoofs of the classic PI yarn, set in ancient China.
Peter Beagle: The Last Unicorn (1968) a gently whimsical fairytale, is the only novel I know, although a pair of novellas set in the same world was published as The Way Home in 2023. Most of the rest of his work is fantasy, too. There’s quite a lot of it.
Roger Zelazny: Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness dive deep into Buddhism and Egyptian religion respectively; his Amber series is much more generic.
Norman Spinrad: The People’s Police. Voodoo in modern New Orleans, reviewed here.
Charles Stross: The Atrocity Archives and its sequels follow a computational demonologist working in the Laundry, a secret British occult intelligence organisation. Not to everyone’s taste but great (gruesome) fun. His earlier work was SF. and very good too.
I’m sure there are lots which have slipped my mind today and I hope that my readers will suggest many new writers and books for me, so I will stop for now but expect to come back to expand the page frequently.
Additions: 23.12.20, … 15.1.21, … 21.12.23, 12.1.24 …