Fantasy books that don’t suck

So after some quite lovely comments posted on the "20 reasons I won’t read your fantasy book" thread here (except: Hillary Clinton as hateful as Ann Coulter? Whatever, dude. I don’t even like Hillary, but she’s not exactly out there calling 9/11 widows "witches" or conservatives "the party of rapists," is she?) and a heated-ish thread over at Absolute Write (in which several misguided souls attempt to defend the indefensible practice of ran’domly a’postrop’hizing na’mes)… I figured it was time to turn the other cheek, as it were, and offer up some examples of Fantasy Novels that Don’t Suck.

Damn, that was a long sentence.

But first, a few guidelines for writing one of the few, the proud, the unsucky:

  1. It’s all about the characters. "Char-" sounds like "care" for a reason. (Well, not really, but…) If I CARE about your CHARacters, I’ll CARE about your book. Make them human: flawed, striving, hopeful, cranky, whatever. Just don’t let them be CARicatures (about which I will not CARE. OK… death to that particular linguistic trick.).
  2. Give me a reference point. I admit that this, like everything else in this list and its predecessor, is totally subjective, and some readers probably actually prefer worlds made up out of whole cloth. But I have a soft spot for worlds that owe some element of their existence to an actual historical milieu. This is not necessary, by any means, but I kinda like it. Especially if your reference point is something like Cordoban Spain or Renaissance Italy or the Mongol Empire or something that’s not a vaguely pan-Celtic pastiche. (Viking Scandinavia is good, too.)
  3. Intrigue! Oh, how I love intrigue. Surprise me. Make a bad guy good or a good guy bad. Kill off a main character or two, and make sure it’s not the disposable sidekick. Read a few good mystery authors (but that’s another rant and will be ranted another time) and learn something about the element of surprise.
  4. Put in some luuuuuv. NO, I don’t want a romance novel. But falling and/or being in love is part of the human experience (rather a nice one, really), and ignoring that Big Drive results in characters and situations that are… well, rather less than convincing. It doesn’t have to end happily; in fact, I kind of like it if it doesn’t. But put it in there anyway. Or give us a good reason why you didn’t.

OK… so now that you have my totally biased take on a very few of the elements that make a fantasy book Unsucky, here’s my list of good ‘uns you should oughta pick up. Subjective, abridged, incomplete, etc. Your results may vary. This list is not right for everyone. Overserious application of this list may cause heart palpitations, liver failure (especially if you drink and read), diarrhea (if you drink coffee or eat piledrivers and read) and curious green spots. See a doctor if any of these symptoms occur.

  1. The big daddy. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. (See a previous entry on my Read list for more about this fantabulous book!)
  2. The Tooth Fairy, Graham Joyce. ("Tooth-rattlingly" chilling, ha-ha!)
  3. Neverwhere and Stardust, Neil Gaiman. (I’m such a fangirl!)
  4. Thomas the Rhymer, Ellen Kushner. (Sad ‘n’ lovely!)
  5. The Bone Doll’s Twin, Lynn Flewelling. (Spooky!)
  6. The Golden Key, Kate Elliott/Melanie Rawn/Jennifer Roberson. (Renaissancey!)
  7. The Summer Witch, Louise Cooper. ("So-o-o sa-ad"–Bauhaus. A totally underrated and thoroughly awesome writer with a well-developed sense of creepy!)
  8. Wolfskin, Juliet Marillier. (Vikings!)
  9. The Lions of Al-Rassan and A Song for Arbonne and Sailing to Sarantium, Guy Gavriel Kay. (Alternate history!)
  10. The Farseer, Liveship Trader and Tawny Man trilogies, Robin Hobb. (Worldbuilding at its best!)
  11. Kushiel’s Dart, Jacqueline Carey. (Kinky!)
  12. Daggerspell and Darkspell, Katherine Kerr (Titles full of words I hate!)
  13. Deerskin, Robin McKinley. (Informed with folk legend!)
  14. Song for the Basilisk, Patricia McKillip. (Lyrical!)
  15. The Ill-Made Mute, Cecilia Dart-Thornton. (Once again, the first book in the series is the best. The pressures of multi-book contracts are unhealthy for many authors. But isn’t that a great title?)
  16. The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy, Tad Williams. (Good old-fashioned rife-with-elves epic fantasy!)
  17. Passage and Doomsday Book, Connie Willis. (Really, more SF than F!)
  18. The Gate to Women’s Country, Sharon Shinn. (Feminista!)
  19. Once Upon a Winter’s Night, Dennis McKiernan. (Fairy tales gone wild!)
  20. The Chalion series, Lois McMaster Bujold. (Fine medieval-Spain inspired hijinx with no wait-for-the-sequel-itis!)
  21. The Fall of Ile-Rien series, Martha Wells. (Steampunkish genre-bending fun with some damn good writing!)

All righty then! That list has one (1) more entry than my list of reasons that fantasy books suck… so I feel I’ve come down on the side of the angels on this one.

And as ever, your comments, disagreements, etc. are more than welcome… and happy reading!

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About Molly Newman

Writer, cook and trivia/spelling bee hostess, living it up in North Portland.
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5 Responses to Fantasy books that don’t suck

  1. Shweta says:

    What, Deerskin isn’t creepy?
    It’s still haunting me ten years later. If it doesn’t make your creepy list, I’m staying well away from everything that does! 😀

  2. Amy Sorensen says:

    First off, ummm, hello, thanks for that link to absolute writer. What a cool site. Would it bug if I followed you over there?
    Second: Thank you for this lovely list! I’m going to amazon-search them and read all about them. When I’m not so tired.

  3. Molly I am sad oh so sad so many things so much energy trying to figure out so many things and then I come here and you make me smile and belive that you can have a real voice and be what you have to be. I love you!! Hugs Wanda

  4. Ed says:

    Where’s the wheel of time?

  5. Jae says:

    Excellent taste. However, A Gate to Women’s Country was written by Sherri S. Tepper.

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