If you’re the sort of person who reads in public a lot you’ve probably been asked two questions- “What are you reading?” (asking this question is the only offence for which I would support the death penalty) and “What sort of books do you like?” When confronted with the latter in secondary school- I was the class bookworm- I would always tell people that I liked fantasy. Looking back, I’m not sure why since for most of my teenage years my experience with adult fantasy consisted of the first nine pages of The Lord of The Rings and the three and a half volumes of The Wheel of Time I got through before coming to my senses.
I’d read kids and YA stuff when I was younger- your Harry Potters and your Liraeals and all that- but that’s not what I meant when I said “fantasy” and the people who asked me this knew it. I meant the stuff for adults. High fantasy, epic fantasy. In the back of my mind somewhere I had the notion that I liked books like this, or that I should like them, but this idea never survived contact with reality. Every so often I’d go into a book shop and look at the shelves upon shelves of doorstopper trilogies and 1000 page Epic Cycles with generic, identikit Medieval settings and titles like “Dragonsoul” and “The Emperor of Kingdoms” and plot synopses that could get away with using the phrase “time-travelling wizard” and expect to be taken seriously, and then I’d sigh heavily and start to feel very tired, and go home empty handed.
I totally just made those two titles up, but it turns out there really is a book called Dragonsoul. It looks awful.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew it wasn’t all cheap Tolkien rip offs and bland Anglo-Saxon dudes in armour. I had read The Earthsea books when I was younger and had heard that Le Guin’s adult books were very good, and by my last year in school authors like China Mieville were starting to make their presence felt. But the effort of sorting through the piles and piles of chaff to get to the wheat always seemed too great, and so I eventually turned my back on fantasy completely. Over the next few years I got a few inklings that fantasy was changing, mostly when it came into contact with other mediums. The genre was leaving Tolkien and his tweeness behind. It was growing up, with blood and sex and people saying “fuck”. It was dark.
“Sounds neato!” I said to myself. “Let’s check it out!”
So I skipped off to my local book shop and bought a copy of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (you may have heard of it) which I had been led to believe was the forerunner in all of this. I got home, eagerly popped it open, and started to read. And then I sighed heavily and started to feel very tired (about halfway through the second chapter, if you’re keeping score).
So Martin didn’t do much for me, and I once again abandoned fantasy. Then the TV series came out. Having not exactly been gripped by the novel it was based on I ignored it even while the rave reviews poured in from every direction. Until, that is, I was laid up from college and work with a dose of the flu powerful enough to drop a rhino. With nothing better to do and on the recommendation of several people whose tastes I generally trust, I marathoned the whole thing in a matter of days.
And I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot.
Now let’s be honest here, this isn’t exactly a highbrow story we’re dealing with- I nearly stopped watching when the barbarian horse people unironically used the phrase “The stallion who mounts the world” to describe the offspring of their leader and his white sex slave/queen- and all the depictions of Sworn Brothers making Solemn Vows of Manly Loyalty got a bit much toward the end. But still, I was entertained.
This got me thinking- I mean sure, George R.R. Martin is a terrible writer, a racist, a chauvinist, and also his stupid beard makes me want to headbutt him into oblivion, but clearly there’s something in this story that appeals to me. What if other authors have taken what Martin did right while leaving behind the more deplorable and un-enjoyable aspects of his work? Maybe there is something to this fantasy stuff after all.
With that in mind, I trawled the internet for the best modern fantasy titles, combing through message boards and Goodreads.com lists, asking for advice from die-hard fans of the genre. With this done I
grabbed two random fantasy books I happened to have lying around at home compiled a reading list. The idea is that I, an inexperienced fantasy novice, will read and review them in an attempt to interpret where the genre is right now and where it’s headed. The books I’ve chosen are:
Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
The Darkness That Comes Before by R Scott Bakker
The Snow Queen by Joan D. Vinge
The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
The Orphan’s Tales (two volumes) by Catherynne A. Valente
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
A few disclaimers up front- this list and the order it’s presented in isn’t set in stone so expect things to change around a bit. You may have noticed that some of the books here don’t really fit the stated goal at the top- that’s because I want to mix it up a little and have some points of comparison. Also, one book in the list is a trollface entry selected purely due to the author’s reputation for internet shenanigans. You’ll know which one it is when I come to it. If something is boring me I’ll review it without finishing it (which I know some people have a huge problem with for some reason) and unless something really grabs me I’m restricting myself to one volume per series.
Also: at some point I’m going to do a super special post/ series of posts on why a certain fantasy author gets way too much credit. No, it’s not Tolkien.
Finally, while it will obviously take me a fair bit of time to get through these, I’ll be posting regular updates as I read on twitter so subscribe to me or check out the wifget at the bottom of the page if you’re looking for some twitterlols. Goodreads may also be drafted in to help, in which case a Goodreads widget will be added to the blog.
First up is Mistborn! Enjoy.