Best of Their Sub Genres: The Greatest Fantasy Books
Low Fantasy: A Song of Ice and Fire
One of the hands down, most well-written books I have ever read. Period. George Martin writes gritty, violent fantasy with only the barest, tantalizing hints of magic. Some scenes will leave you aching for more, and he will leave you hanging there.
Currently, four books of the series are out, with another in the works.You can visit his website for excerpts from the upcoming book. Sadly, there is no set release date yet, so you have to make do with the rotating excerpts he posts there.
One of the absolute best things about the books is that there is no pure good and no pure evil. There are only motivations and ambitions, some more ethically sound than others. In that sense, the characters are absolutely believable. Everyone has their favorite sides to support, but don't be surprised if some new piece of information revealed about your favorite character makes you switch to prefer his or her most hated enemy.
Best thing about this series? You don't know who will die (and plenty of major characters die) and who you should be rooting for.
This strength is also its greatest weakness. It can be an overwhelming, disorienting experience to read this book. It sounds silly, but it's true. Readers develop emotional connections to the characters, and sudden twists and turns of the plot can be mentally exhausting to follow.
Despite the effort required to read this series, I absolutely recommend it to anyone wanting an epic book experience, fantasy or otherwise.
Traditional Epic Fantasy: The Wheel of Time
The magnum opus of the late Robert Jordan, this is a defining epic fantasy of gargantuan proportions. It tells of the story of Rand, a country boy who becomes the prophesied Dragon, who will break the world and repair it again. A simple story line, perhaps, but, riddled with side stories and hundreds of characters.
Jordan's strengths are his immersing writing, his ability to keep his plots and subplots straight, and his knack for creating interesting, memorable characters. Everybody has their favorite characters in this series. Oh, and Rand gets three girls. Yes, you heard me. Three. Guys everywhere who read this series love that.
Weaknesses? It's a really, really big story, in the sense that the subplots have subplots. It's a lot to keep up with, and you might be 2/3 of the way through one of the later books before you hear from one of the main characters. It also slowed into the later books. The writing and characterization didn't decline in quality; there just became periods of heavy political maneuvering and where there was little action. The latest one definitely picked up the pace though, so I encourage you to read that one if you stopped at one of the slow books.
Robert Jordan passed away in September of a lethal heart condition, leaving the final book of the series unfinished. However, he had it partly written and the rest in notes, so Brandon Sanderson (of Elantris and Mistborn) will be publishing the final book in a year and a half.
Before he died, he posted updates on his blog. Now, his wife and friends/family make occasional updates there. I've linked to the first and last of his series on Amazon, because I figure you either haven't read the series before, or you gave up halfway through. Try the latest book, Knife of Dreams. Seriously!
Romantic Fantasy: Kushiel's Legacy
This is not your grandmother's fantasy series. Or your mother's, for that matter. No, this is an emotionally compelling story that begins with a woman struggling to find her place in the world, and the tale eventually switches to that of her adopted son's point of view.
Kushiel's Legacy has nothing to do with wizards or wands, but everything to do with divinity and love. It's lighter than traditional fantasy, and a quicker read, but that doesn't make any of its lessons any less significant. One element that sets this story apart from more mainstream fantasy is the fact that sex is a key detail of the story. However, there is never smut for its own sake; rather, it is a physical expression of the main theme of the series: unconditional love.
The only problem I ever have with these books is that sometimes they can seem a little too frivolous. Challenges seem too easy to overcome, and stakes are not high enough. A little more tension and intrigue would be nice, and would make the situations seem a little bit more believable.
However, I enjoy each progressing book a little more, because the plots are becoming increasingly more complex and varied, and the characters are encountering different cultures in the alternate Europe that is the books' setting.
Despite appearing to be a niche series, Jacqueline Carey's books have many fans. There's a lot to love in the series, from the many gods and beliefs mentioned, to the political branches of the royal families, to wondering how it's all going to end.
The next book in the series, Kushiel's Mercy, is out June 12, 2008. I have placed it on the Amazon list, after Kushiel's Dart. If you are looking for a fantasy book that includes romance without becoming smutty and pointless, look no further.
The Complete Trilogy, with Adult Covers, on Amazon
Children's Fantasy: His Dark Materials
Oh no, it's a trilogy that was also marketed toward children! Does that mean you can't enjoy it? Of course not, because there are many things in these books that a child simply doesn't understand and would miss. This is a complex story that deserves a re-reading, if you read it when you were younger.
Best thing about the books is their originality. There are many things in here you won't see in any other fantasy book. For one thing, it covers the topic of alternate universes: as in, it doesn't just take place largely in an alternate Europe; it is aware that other universes exist, and several of the characters travel to them.
My favorite thing about the series is that most of the characters have shape-shifting daemons, or anthropomorphic representations of their personalities. As they hit puberty, though, the changes become slower and slower until their daemon chooses one form to exist in permanently.
All the people in the main character's universe live in a Europe where religion dominates politics, and the Church trumps science. There are some not-so-subtle barbs against Catholicism. It certainly offended conservative Christians, who raised an uproar about the recent movie version of the first book. However, the movie's controversial themes were largely removed from the movie, so there really wasn't that much for them to make a fuss about.
My biggest issue with the trilogy is that the writing and pacing became a little less stellar with each book. I enjoy all three books, however, and it's worth reading all three of them. I mean, how often do you get to read a completed fantasy series?
Contemporary Fantasy: Neil Gaiman's Novels
If you're ever in the mood for some haunting, modern-day fantasy, look no further than Neil Gaiman. Of the graphic novel Sandman fame, he now writes standalone fantasy novels. He is an amazing writer, and updates his blog with information on his upcoming releases.
My two personal favorites are American Gods and Neverwhere, which I have linked to on the right. There is a lot of dry humour and sarcasm in his writing, a reflection of his British background. From him, you don't have to worry about awkward sequels that detract from the originals, or prequels that are really unnecessary. His books are each a self-contained story that has no link to any of his others, so enjoy them for that alone.
Fans of traditional fantasy might feel a little out of place reading his books, mostly because of their urban, modern settings. Never fear, though, elements of the extraordinary are here, they just don't manifest themselves in the obvious, "I am doing magic right now" forms.
I absolutely recommend his books for anyone looking to go on a breathtaking adventure without committing the mental effort required to keep up with the longer epics.
The First Four (and Best) of the Vampire Chronicles
Dark Fantasy: Anne Rice
The Vampire Chronicles, when they first came out in the 1970's, were a novel new genre that no one really knew how to define. Now, of course, vampire stories abound, (and usually aren't very good) but Anne Rice deserves credit for the contributions she has made to supernatural horror stories.
My favorites are the first four in the main vampire series, from Interview with a Vampire to The Tale of the Body Thief, and it is to those I have linked on the right. Rice's writing is fluid and dramatic, and she makes the main setting of New Orleans into a magical place. She emphasizes that her vampires were once humans, too, and struggle with morality and religion just as people do.
Critics of the books note their occasional redundancy, as well as the declining quality of her later books. My advice is to read the books with the spirit she wrote them in: it was much more about her passion for her story than out of the conviction that she had a specific purpose or moral she wanted to get across in her books.
Sadly, don't expect any more vampire books in the future. Rice denounced her own books in 2004, and now only writes novels of early Christianity. Pick up the first four of her vampire stories in a half-price bookstore sometime, though. They are a piece of the past that set the mood for an entire sub-genre to follow.
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