A fantasy pick list from me is almost pointless, because aside from one obscurity it’s all the classics. So in my commentary I try to explain why these retain greatness in a genre flooded with formula and hack. I’m not biased toward any sub-genre. Represented here is mythic fantasy, portal fantasy, political fantasy, pulp fantasy, science fantasy, and coming-of-age fantasy. But none of this is popular fantasy. If you like the Shannara series, the Wheel of Time, the Sword of Truth, the Belgariad, the Kingkiller Chronicle, the tales of Drizzt, well, then this list isn’t for you.
See also my science fiction list.
1. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1954-1955. What needs saying? I could go on about Tolkien’s meticulous crafting of Middle Earth, his prehistorical approach to myth and disdain for allegory, his linguistic brilliance, or his ear for the pagan epics. But it’s the long defeat theme more than anything else that sets Middle-Earth apart from feel-good fantasy. As a Catholic Tolkien thought history could only be a long defeat. Christian readers have claimed that Gandalf, Aragorn, and Frodo are Christ-figures, but they actually show the need for Christ as Tolkien saw it — noble and courageous, but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. That’s why Frodo was a failure, unable to resist the Ring when it mattered most. His quest was triumphant because of a fluke, or the intervention of fate made possible by mercy shown to Gollum. Sauron may have been defeated, but The Lord of the Rings is about everyone’s defeat: the suffering and passing of Frodo, the fading of the elves, and the foreordained deterioration of men in the Fourth Age. That’s what the Grey Havens is about, and it gets me every time. Even aside from all of this, on the strength of the narrative alone, The Lord of the Rings is the best story ever told.
2. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson. 1980-1983. Of the three chronicles, the first haven’t aged well and the third are a mixed bag. The second trilogy is the masterpiece and proves that sequels can be really good when authors push themselves. For all the first trilogy’s originality with the character of Thomas Covenant, it depends on a standard contest of muscle — armies fighting armies, with clear lines between good and evil. The second shows Donaldson completely on his own terms in a cross genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring, and it’s depressing as hell. The Wounded Land may well be the most depressing fantasy novel ever written, as we see the Land we grew to love in the first series poisoned in hideous cycles. The One Tree is even more mind-blowing, and it was an important milestone for me in my teen years. It turns the horror of The Wounded Land inward with self-scrutiny as Linden Avery relives her traumatic childhood over the course of a sea voyage. The quest’s failure at the isle of the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy, leaving Covenant no other option in White Gold Wielder than to surrender to Lord Foul in a desperate gambit so that Linden can heal the Land. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.
3. A Song of Ice and Fire (Vols 1-3), George R.R. Martin. 1996-2000. Lord Lard may have lost his mojo in the recent volumes, but the first three remain the best political fantasy you’ll ever read, and the third in particular, A Storm of Swords, moves like a juggernaut. It’s famous for the Red Wedding, but the entire novel is a roller coaster of brutal twists spread over so many plots that miraculously don’t overburden the narrative. There is Jon’s story in the north, where after patient development over the previous two volumes, everything explodes, with the Others assaulting the Fist of the First Men, the wildlings assaulting the Wall, and Jon going from renegade to lord commander while nearly losing his life on both sides to get there. Dany shows her teeth in east, and I still get chills over her gambit to “give up” Drogon who roasts the slavers of Astapor. By the final pages virtually everyone important on the continent of Westeros is left dead, half-dead, or isolated. A Storm of Swords is the rare 1000-page monster that keeps landing bombshells and killing off characters you hate to love, and it pays off the developments of A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings that are almost just as excellent.
4. The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien. 1977. The tales of the First Age are almost as good as Lord of the Rings and in some ways better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really is how our world began. The theme is the Fall, which shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without containing it. The elves fall from Valinor when they keep the Silmarilli gems and refuse to help the Valar against Morgoth; this mirrors the fall of humanity from Eden. They fall a second time when they recreate paradise in Middle-Earth by the power of the Three Rings (in Rivendell, Lothlorien, and at the Grey Havens). Men also fall again, when they grow dissatisfied with their island of Numenor, and sail for the Undying Lands to make war on the Valar. In each of the four falls, there is a reach for godhood: men want immortality and elves want to be gods of their own creations. The result is all the tragic tales in The Silmarillion — cycles of hopeless war on the Enemy, destined to be replayed again and again. The battles of Beleriand are epic and I hope to see one or more of them filmed someday, especially Fingolfin’s single combat with Morgoth. His death demoralizes the elves for the rest of the age, as it does to me whenever I read it.
5. Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock. 1963. If you want nihilistic fantasy, you can’t get more devastating than Elric. But his final chapter (in a series of eight volumes) shares a premise with Lord of the Rings that often goes unnoticed. Elric’s purpose in wielding Stormbringer is somewhat like Frodo’s mission to destroy the Ring: both will defeat evil but in the process cause the passing of gifted races (the elves, the Melniboneans) who made amazing things possible on earth. Both create the basis for a new age, in which humanity has more of a fighting chance, without evil entities like Sauron and Arioch. The difference is that Elric’s world has to be destroyed first; the historical age won’t emerge gradually like it does out of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age. After Elric defeats Chaos (or even if Chaos wins) he must wipe everything out so humanity can start over. Things are so bad that a purging is required — the equivalent of Noah’s flood — meaning that Elric’s world is fated to lose no matter what; it’s just a question of whether or not Chaos will continue dominating in the new age. There are scenes of repulsive horror in Stormbringer that left me poleaxed, like Elric’s wife changing into a huge worm from the neck down. It’s a rare fantasy that raises the stakes high and brings everything down so low without tripping over its ambitions.
6. The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe. 1980-1983. Fans pour over this masterpiece like biblical exegetes do the letters of Paul. But really, I would advise not thinking about it so hard, at least not on first reading. Just take the story in. The narrative is immersive, the dialogue (which never flags) rich and organic, and Severian’s journey so phantasmagorical that you won’t want the spell broken by studying as you read. Severian ranks with anti-heroes like Covenant and Elric, a torturer exiled for the crime of showing mercy to a prisoner, and then sent to a city far north to assume the role of a public executioner. It’s a task he takes on willingly, but his ambitions are divided when he allies himself with an insurrectionist, falls in love with a young girl he accidentally resurrected (with an artifact he needs to get rid of but can’t), and wants to make peace with a woman who keeps trying to kill him. His ultimate trial is for nothing less than a new sun to save the planet. Fans keep debating if this is fantasy or science fiction. On the one hand it’s set on our planet (“Urth”) a million years in the future, with guns and spaceships; but few can access the technology, and there are also enchanted relics. The magical elements, the regressed medieval culture, and the mystical nature of Severian’s quest align with fantasy more than science fiction — it’s really “science fantasy” — and spread over four volumes, it’s the best the sub-genre has ever offered.
7. The Seven Altars of Dusarra, Lawrence Watt-Evans. 1981. Ask fantasy readers if they’ve even heard of The Lords of Dus quartet and I guarantee you’ll get a blank stare. Even in my day it was an obscurity. The second book, The Seven Altars of Dusarra, is the one I read so many times as a teenager it was ridiculous. Garth the Overman has the personality of Conan, lives in a world like that of Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, and wields a sentient bloodthirsty sword that calls to mind Elric’s Stormbringer. Yet none of this feels like pastiche. Garth holds his own like the best of the pulp anti-heroes. He’s sent on a mission to steal whatever lies on the temple altars of seven nasty cults, and he does so with no scruples, relying on hack-and-slash, killing people, regretting it, and calling forth a citywide manhunt. I love the Dusarran pantheon, and the cults have some pretty ghastly rites. The priests of Andhur Regvos blind themselves, those of Sai practice torture and human sacrifice, those of P’hul have hideous skin diseases and enjoy spreading them, etc. On rereading this book in recent years I’d forgotten how much blood Garth spills without a second thought to get what he needs. On the other hand, I remember the strong D&D overtones. Garth’s mission is classic temple robbing, and this is the quintessential novel for old-school D&D players.
8. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. 1956. I’m not a huge Narnia fan let alone enjoy kids books, but I do love The Last Battle. It might seem odd to compare it to Stormbringer (#5) but it is about the world’s destruction, and for a children’s book it certainly doesn’t soft-peddle the apocalyptic horrors. Precious Narnia is destroyed, Aslan’s cute little wayward animals are thrown into the apocalyptic incinerator, and even gentle Queen Susan gets the shaft — she is “no longer a friend of Narnia”, we are told, simply because she enjoys dating boys and having sex. If all of this seems monstrous, that’s much the point. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, apocalypses serve a hyper “justice” that redefines the word. From a dramatic point of view, The Last Battle‘s dark content is its strength, and something never seen in children’s literature on this scale. The Revelation-plotted narrative is a cracking suspense piece, as evil forces keep getting the upper hand against Narnia’s last king. The ape-ass duo (false prophet and anti-Christ) work their repulsive designs from inside a barn, which contains shifting terrors we can barely glimpse. There are no victories here, save Aslan’s at the end, which is glorious though in a very distressing way. Kids have been traumatized by this book and I’m not surprised.