Here’s an updated reading list. I rank these special novels from #1 to #20, but the only rankings that really mean anything are the first five. Lord of the Rings, Shogun, The Throat, Dune, and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant — in that order — remain my all time favorites. Numbers 6-20 are ranked according to how I feel today but if you ask me next month, or next year, they could get shuffled around. The point is they’re all excellent, and more than just “favorite novels”; each has impacted me in a unique way and worth singling out for that reason.
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. Some Christian critics have mistaken Gandalf, Aragorn, and/or Frodo for Christ-figures, but for Tolkien these heroes actually show the need for Christ. They’re noble and courageous but ultimately hopeless against the forces of evil. 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. Shogun. James Clavell, 1975. This is a novel that completely re-contextualizes you. You begin horrified by the Japanese and somewhere, somehow, become convinced they’re the civilized ones. By the end, you’re actually thinking like a samurai and endorsing ruthless codes against your integrity. Ritual suicide and honor killings — of which there are countless in Shogun — made complete sense to me; that’s how good Clavell is making you forget who you are. It’s probably the most didactic novel I’ve read (its message being that western people have much to learn from easterns) and yet it never feels preachy. Clavell is a storyteller whose priorities are action, romance, and political intrigue; endless backbiting; and cracking dialogue. He wants you to live and breathe the past, and to see feudal Japan through the eyes of the first Englishman to sail there. He reinvents historical figures like Will Adams and Ieyasu Tokugawa without sensationalism, knowing exactly when to loose the bounds of his imagination. Shogun taught me as much about thrilling fiction as it made me reflect on themes that were clearly important to Clavell — death (escaping from “the abyss of life”, as one samurai reflects), love (understood in terms of duty more than affection), and treachery (the other coin to honor-shame loyalty, and sometimes esteemed as a virtue). Shogun is the emperor of historical novels, pure and simple.
3. The Throat. Peter Straub, 1993. The final book of the Blue Rose Trilogy is a masterpiece of meta-fiction, dealing with murder and secrets and how crimes of the past hold the present in a vise. Koko did this in the context of Vietnam war horrors, and Mystery was about a Sherlock Holmes figure mentoring a gifted boy. Those stories had nothing to do with each other aside from the indirect influence of a serial killer called Blue Rose. In The Throat, the Blue Rose killings become the focus: “I really had to solve the Blue Rose Murders,” said Straub, “and that meant I was in for as long, long book. It not only had to do that, but also had to swallow Koko and Mystery, to digest them and exist around them like an onion.” Put simply, The Throat is Straub doing best at what he does best. I resent having to put it down whenever I read it. Tim Underhill is a thoroughly intimate character, his world (both inner and outer) suffused with an organic realism few novels achieve. Heartless people. Bleak childhoods. Religious rites of cannibalism. The specter of Vietnam. It’s a novel about the ugly violence people are capable of, for reasons barely comprehensible, deep scars, and the question of healing. Only Lord of the Rings and Shogun have affected me more deeply than The Throat.
4. Dune. Frank Herbert, 1965. What makes Dune the best science fiction novel is its disdain for the science fiction vision. Robots, computers, and cyberwars are non-existent, and in their place are clairvoyants, messiahs, and jihads. By creating a cosmos which has rejected the machine, Herbert was able to focus on religious and social issues without interference of techno-glam, and in particular to show the tensions inherent in charismatic messiah movements. Paul Atreides/Muad’Dib is the living contradiction of an elite duke and low-life prophet, and though a savior of the oppressed, will lead a jihad that will kill sixty billion people. Herbert did for sci-fic what Tolkien did for fantasy, building a world so convincing it may as well be real. For years I’ve dreamed of planet Arrakis, where water is precious as gold and sandworms are the size of skyscrapers. And which of course is the only source of the addictive spice (the One Ring of sci-fic if there ever was one), which prolongs life, heightens awareness, and even makes interstellar travel possible. Dune is impossible to stop thinking about when I read it. It contains ideas that are as relevant today as they were fifty-five years ago.
5. The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Stephen R. Donaldson, 1980-1983. Of the three Covenant 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, the outcome 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 blended genre of fantasy-horror. I consider the Sunbane to be the most brilliant plot device after the One Ring. The Wounded Land is probably 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 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. This is a rare symphony in fantasy writing.
6. The Prague Cemetery. Umberto Eco, 2010. The only fictional character in this novel is the main one, Simone Simonini, and he’s one of the most despicable characters ever portrayed in a work of literature. We get to watch this gluttonous anti-Semitic pile of shit hatch his plans to forge The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the famous hoax describing a Jewish plan for global domination. Most of the novel is in diary form (written by Simonini in 1897), and the book’s title refers to a pivotal meeting of rabbis from across Europe who gather in a Prague cemetery. There they plot the destruction of Christian civilization so they can become the rulers of the Western world. Along the way we’re treated to other conspiracies “factualized” in the novel — a Jesuit plot against the Freemasons, proof that Jews were behind the Masons and other revolutionary movements since 1789, conspiring to bring down Christian monarchies. Eco uses a vile character to mine conspiracy theory for all its worth, and to show its role in leading to Hitler’s ascendance. Even aside from that, The Prague Cemetery has plenty to say about our need for conspiracy theories in general — which has only increased in the 21st century — and why trashy novels like The DaVinci Code become runaway bestsellers. Eco was the anti-Dan Brown, a gift from the literary gods, and I still mourn his passing.
7. 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 even better. The history resonates on a level that suggests this really might be how our world began. The overarching theme is the Fall, which was always important for Tolkien, and shows how Middle-Earth aligns with the Christian myth without allegorizing or 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. These battles of Beleriand are epic, and like The Iliad show a broken world craving redemption.
8. Boundaries of Eden. Glenn Arbery, 2020. The way this novel blends genres subtly across a philosophical canvas is something rarely seen these days. It’s a heritage mystery, a southern Gothic, a drug-cartel thriller, and looks at the mind of a serial killer in a way reminiscent of Peter Straub. Also Straubian are the way sins of the past impinge on the present, and the pain that comes with digging up the past. The main character Walter Peach has a lot of pain to begin with. He runs a newspaper in the central county of Georgia, treats his wife and kids like sewage, falls in love with his niece, openly fawns on said niece around his family, while at work he publishes screeds against Mexican cartels that no one takes seriously. Pivotal to the drama (and Peach’s past) is an abandoned 40-year old house buried under a sea of kudzu. Some of the scenes inside the house show that Arbery could be a horror writer if he wanted to; he has a gift for summoning dread that many horror writers only aspire to. Some of the most horrifying parts, though, are revelations unearthed about the main character’s mother, her slave heritage, and crimes committed in the name of justice. Well crafted and multi-layered — even poetic at times — Boundaries of Eden begins like a Faulkner classic and slow-burns into something much more; it never cheats the reader because it’s a novel that does everything, and because Arbery is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph. I didn’t want it to end.
9. Inferno & Purgatorio. Dante Alighieri, 1320. The ultimate revenge fiction and the best narrative poems in the history of western literature. (Paradiso isn’t so inspired; Dante should have quit while he was ahead and left his final act to the imagination.) While the lurid and graphic Inferno will always hold pride of place for me, Purgatorio gets better every time I read it. Purgatory deals with psychological sins, punishing the seven deadlies committed in thought more than in actuality, and for which the sinner is repentant. The terraces purge sin in a manner fitting the crime (as the circles of hell punish sinners in deserving manners), but Dante’s vision goes beyond mere debt-paying to the desire to change and become good, that makes Purgatory so interesting. Dante’s placement of Eden at the top of Mount Purgatory is a brilliant piece of theological revisionism: one’s purging leads to the state before original sin; one stands on top and looks down, wondering honestly how he or she could have ever found anything sinful to be alluring. But what really makes Inferno and Purgatorio great is that they’re so shockingly modern — lyrical, satirical, biblical, yes, but also full of nasty invective and coarse humor. I’ve often dreamed of rewriting the Divine Comedy for modern times, and populating hell with world leaders, politicians, and religious figures from the 20th-21st centuries. No shortage of candidates, that’s for sure.
10. Weaveworld. Clive Barker, 1987. The fifties gave us Lord of the Rings; the sixties Dune; the seventies Shogun. For me the epic of the eighties was Weaveworld, a tale of magic-users fighting for their wonderland among human inferiors, and failing tragically. The prose is a feast and the narrative never flags. The premise involves a race of spell-casters who for centuries had carved out a niche for themselves in England, until forced into hiding. The magic-users are the Seerkind; their geographical wonderland is the Fugue. At the novel’s start, both have been preserved in suspended animation (since 1896), shrunk and woven into a magic carpet. Now eighty years later, they are unwoven and unleashed again into the human world, fully unprepared for the hostility that awaits. On the one hand, there is the alliance of a rogue Seer and a nasty salesman, though they each have conflicting motives. The protagonists of this drama are Cal and Suzanna, drawn to each other as they try to save the Fugue from those who would sell, abuse, or extinguish it. Fantasy elements are fleshed out with the right amount of detail — not so much that it bogs down the narrative, but just enough to take the world seriously — and horror elements are horrific by even Barker’s standards. The novel is a meditation on memory, and how memory fails us in the scheme of life’s mysteries, when we need it most. I often say that the worst thing I fear about getting old is losing memory — having parts of my life erased, as it were — and Cal’s tragedy brings those fears into sharp focus. See my retrospective that I wrote in quarantine last year. For whatever reason it was the perfect novel to revisit when everything shut down for Covid.
11. The Gap Cycle. Stephen R. Donaldson, 1990-1996. This five-volume homage to Wagner’s Ring is not only the darkest, nastiest sci-fic in existence, but probably the darkest, nastiest work of fiction period. Everyone is mean-spirited to the core; allies are as deadly as enemies, if not more so, including the galactic police director who puts a cop through rape and worse to achieve justice. No one in this universe has so much a decent thought. Perhaps every hundred pages, a character will say something close to nice and you sigh in appreciation. Donaldson has always been a depressing writer, but he set a new bar in the Gap Cycle. And the suspense levels are insane. The race to escape Thanatos Minor still gives me panic attacks when I read. Every corner of that planetoid is unforgettable, especially the self-mutilation stage in the Ease ‘n’ Sleaze bar. Crazy as it sounds, I grew to like the central character of Angus Thermopyle. He’s scum, but as a cyborg bereft of choice elicits compassion. The Gap Cycle is a space opera about evil authorities, genetically imperial aliens, and vile people caught in between. Humanity’s hope? An abused woman who must navigate the machinations of all three. Nothing tests the boundaries of “the darker the evil, the more good will shine in the end”, than Donaldson’s pulverizing Gap Cycle.
12. Captain from Castile. Samuel Shellabarger, 1945. It’s hard to believe that authors like Shellabarger were the John Grishams of their day, but the ’40s were the golden age of American fiction. The popular novels of that decade look like high-brow literature today, and Captain of Castile may as well be a classic. It throws you into the life of a young Spaniard who seeks honor and wealth in Aztec lands, after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The capture of his family and death of his sister at the Inquisitor’s hands drive incredibly powerful scenes, and Cortes’ conquest of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) seems drawn from first-hand accounts. For a ’40s effort, the contrasts between the new world’s “pagan savages” and supposedly superior conquistadors is handled with surprising subtlety; Shellabarger’s decade was a politically incorrect one, to say the least. The politically incorrect elements that do emerge are a strength in any case, for the same reason James Clavell’s brand of multiculturalism is; respect for the Other doesn’t preclude judgments or even feelings of superiority, and there’s as much (if not more) to judge about the Aztecs as the Spaniards. There are dilemmas about friendship, racism, and religious tyranny. And a powerful love triangle: Pedro pines for an aristocrat beyond his reach, but is also in love with a tavern-wench beneath his station; it’s impossible to predict how it will end. Captain from Castile is focused abroad, but it’s the first part set in Spain, revolving around the fist of the Inquisition, that stays with me, more than even Aztec sacrifice.
13. 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.
14. Lost Boy, Lost Girl. Peter Straub, 2003. There’s a scene from this book forever burned in my psyche: It’s evening. Jimbo creeps onto the front porch. From the lawn Mark shines a flashlight into the window. Jimbo is so shocked by what he sees that he leaps backwards and passes out before Mark revives him and they run for their lives. Pages later we find out what he saw: “A guy was hiding way back in the room. He was looking right at me. It was like he stepped forward, like he deliberately moved into the light, and I saw his eyes. Looking at me.” That may fall flat in the retelling, but in context it’s a ripper. It appears that Jimbo has seen the ghost of a serial killer who used to live in the house and customized it to facilitate his murders. (The killer had used secret passageways to spy on his terrified captives, torment them on beds of pain, and do all sorts of hideous stuff.) But it turns out the ghost isn’t the only entity inside the house; there’s something or someone even worse, and this mixture of terrors is handled so brilliantly we’re never sure what’s going on. Soon after, one of the boys disappears, and the question is whether he was abducted by a pedophile or snatched into a spiritual world by the ghost of the serial killer’s daughter. How you answer determines your reaction when you turn the final page. Lost Boy, Lost Girl is that rare novel completely beyond criticism.
15. The Five. Robert McCammon, 2011. If you like rock music and want a novel that makes you hear it off the page, then this is what you’ve been waiting for. A dirt-poor indie rock band (called The Five, three men and two women), drive around in a van and play gigs across the southwestern U.S., chasing dreams of success. They finally get that, but at a nasty price when a crazy ex-Marine sniper starts picking them off for comments made by the lead singer about soldiers in Iraq. Suddenly the band’s concerts swell in proportion to the media vultures, and with the fame comes devastation. It’s a nail-biter punctuated with slow pauses and soul-searching, both parts just as hard to put down. The narrative is saturated with the author’s love for rock n roll. It’s no mean feat to make a novel reader “hear” music, yet that’s what I was doing — crafting my own mental jams and drawing on textures from favorite bands. (You’ll make your own associations, but I imagined The Five as sounding grungy like The Smashing Pumpkins and searing like The Walkmen.) This was especially true for the signature song written by all of the band members instead of the usual two: it takes on a curious life throughout the story, as it’s born of harrowing events and each band member finds his or her muse at the oddest, eeriest moments.
16. Whirlwind. James Clavell, 1986. About the Iranian Revolution in ’79, almost a year before the hostage crisis began, and like all of Clavell’s novels based on true events in a clash of cultures. Like Shogun, Whirlwind involves western people struggling in a hostile land they can barely make sense of — this time, it’s helicopter pilots working for Iran Oil — and the story is their escape from a nation being strictly taken over by Islam. But it carries a different thrust from Shogun. Between East and West, Clavell built bridges; he seems to have been more intent on burning bridges when it came to the Middle-East. Shogun and Tai-Pan are about cross-cultural fusion: the western protagonists remain in Japan or Hong Kong, meshing their western outlook with revelations in the east. They take the good and discard the bad from both. Whirlwind advances the opposite impression: there can be no such optimistic marriage with Islamic countries. Some today might call this Islamophobic, but there’s no irrational fear of Islam that emerges in Whirlwind. Anyone would be rationally repelled if put into the situation of these characters. Clavell depicted things accurately, lived extensively in the places he wrote about (he even took helicopter training as background to Whirlwind), and always respected the peoples he portrayed. This is a grand, sprawling novel (like Shogun over 1000 pages) that immerses you in the Islamist mindset with no sentimental whitewashing, and ends on an escape operation that leaves me sweating every time.
17. 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. No one would ever accuse it of being high-brow literature, but I love it to pieces.
18. Cluster. Piers Anthony, 1977. From a time when science fiction writers weren’t afraid to take real risks. Cluster‘s premise is that spiritual possession is the most effective way to space travel, as it allows people to send their kirlian auras (what we think of as “souls”) across vast distances, safely, instantly, and at little cost while their bodies stay behind. Their auras take possession of a host, alien or otherwise, though the takeover cannot be forced on a consciously unwilling subject. Possession is a bold idea in science fiction and allows the author a protagonist whose perspective on other species, including his own, changes according to the aliens he inhabits. This is a great novel for its interrogation of inter-species perspective, for the whole premise of spirit possession — and for some graphically arresting portrayals of alien sex. Throw in an explosive murder mystery, and you have perfection. See my 40th anniversary retrospective for more details of this gem that’s been largely forgotten in the 21st century.
19. The King of Vinland’s Saga. Stuart Mirsky, 1998. If Shogun is about the clash of east and west, this is of Viking and Indian, and the codes of honor are just as deadly. Mirsky’s narrative is lyrically old-fashioned but addictive once you get used to it. The dialogue sea-saws between descriptions of what is said and the actual quoted speech. For example: “Osvif said this was all very irregular and a serious matter, ‘or didn’t you know that it is a fatal flaw to bring charges against men, if you are equally guilty of them?'” Or this: “Arnliot laughed and promised to bring her back many fine gifts from the land of the Skraelings, ‘and not least of these, the heads of those who oppose me’.” I’ve never seen this style wielded with such rhythmic discipline, and it meshes perfectly with the gloom-and-doom tone of the Norse and Icelandic sagas. The story is about Leif Erickson’s grandson who sails to North America and reclaims the territory of Vinland, assimilates into a Skraeling (Indian) tribe and battles against another, and then finds himself in hot water when the enemies he left behind in Greenland come after him. Mirsky follows the idea that Vinland was in present-day Maine rather than Newfoundland where most historians place it. This is a page-turner of family feuds, overseas conquests, hopeless battles, and doomed warriors. And there’s no Dances with Wolves political-correctness here; neither Vikings nor Skraelings are heroes or villains. Each is fluent in savagery, and each capable of the rare tender mercy.
20. Faerie Tale. Raymond Feist, 1988. If it isn’t the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. I’m not easily unnerved, but in his experimental departure from high fantasy, Feist gave me more scares than Stephen King at his best. The plot is simple: a family moves into an old farm house in New York State, with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns — but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day — and contorted creatures of demonic fury. The strongest of these beings have the power to incite terror and lust in a person, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. The novel also explores the idea of forgetfulness: the cultural forgetfulness of people who treat myths lightly throughout history, and individual forgetfulness inflicted by way of enchantment. Thanks to this book, I think of St. Patrick’s Day as a second Halloween. Leprechauns and changelings have all the potentials of ghosts and vampires, and if Faerie Tale doesn’t convince you of that, then you’ve grown up too much.