A friend suggested, after discussing Sci-Fi Fantasy World’s [unofficial] list of the top twenty fantasy series, that, due to my complaint about the poverty of this list, that I produce my own. Initially I balked at the idea because I felt that: a) in no way could my list ever be comprehensive (I would forget things, it would be out of date in a decade with the production of more literature); b) I don’t think “best of” lists are ever accurate since, even if we do except that there are standards of literary quality (which I do) all we can do, in my opinion, is speak of general categories of excellent books and the category of “best of” (if we can indeed establish this) will possess entries that will be much greater than a limited list and might not be entirely comparable to each other. His suggestion, though, was to make a tentative and non-definitive list that would still provide a counter list to the one we were discussing.
My problem with SFFWorld list is that, with several exceptions, it was filled with the kinds of books that I either was or would be into when I was in grade eight. That is, most of the entries by-and-large represented the tastes of a very particular online fan community, the tastes that the people behind the Puppies slates advocate for: Tolkien inspired, world-building over writing quality and characterization, anti-literary, typically fantasy, and masculinist wish-fulfillment narratives.
True to form, the SSFWorld list completely ignored what I take to be one of the most exciting developments in fantasy literature in the past two decades: the emergence of marginalized voices, particularly women of colour, who have been crafting very brilliant, and critically acclaimed fantasy novels. (Note: I’m not arguing that a “best of” list should fall prey to some positivist empiricism that seeks to balance diversity just for the sake of it – the truth is that, since these writers are still emerging from marginalization, they proportionally are producing far less, and that, despite the large amount of women who have been writing in the field since its early days, women of colour are still largely underrepresented when it comes to actual publishing. But recognizing that they have emerged to produce very good works, and ones that I think are far better than the standard fare, is necessary.) Sure you can argue that fantasy is a popular genre, and that we should thus treat the “greatest” works as those that have been the best-sellers, but you can also argue that: a) we don’t have to choose great works based on some lowest common denominator populism (if this was the case then everyone who studies literature is a fool, The DaVinci Code and 50 Shades of Grey are just as good as Crime and Punishment), even not in fantasy; b) things that possess literary acclaim can also be best-sellers.
Some qualifications before getting to my top twenty list, which will be split into this post and the next. First of all, I have limited myself to fantasy rather than science-fiction, but fantasy broadly understood: where, even in the case of cross-genre elements, the fantastic aspects dominate; where, even in the case that the fantastic is vaguely hinted to be misunderstood remnants of technology far in the future of social collapse, the characters within the fictional universe still function according to fantasy tropes. Secondly, like the SFFWorld list, I limited myself to fantasy series: this ends up excluding some great standalone novels (such as Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria, which I think is the best fantasy novel written in the past twenty years, if not one of the best novels) but, as with the first qualification, if it was about listing twenty books I would find it impossible to produce a list I was even marginally happy with. Thirdly, I have included some series that are not finished: while this might not permit an accurate assessment of the series’ strengths, since the SFFWorld list did the same (what with its inclusion of Song of Ice and Fire and The Dresden Files) I figure I can do the same. Fourthly, I will try to avoid the kind of fantasy that is inspired by (and usually derivative of) Tolkien: hell this list won’t even contain Lord of the Rings (shocker!) because, while I enjoyed Tolkien in grade six, most of the fantasy I care about, and that I find inspiring in the way that I find Joyce or Dostoevsky inspiring (but for different and incomparable reasons) is usually neither Tolkien or Tolkien-esque. Fourthly, rather than listing the books according to some hierarchy of best-to-worst, I have chosen to list them chronologically, based on the publication of the first book in the series. Fifthly, I have done my best to provide a list that balances high literary and popular styles of writing because I’m of the opinion that: i) that good writing can be either of these stylistic approaches (based on the inverse that we know what counts as bad writing of both – pretentious prose that tries too hard versus pulpish writing that sounds like shit when you read it aloud); ii) some of the “non-genre” classics have, in their own time, represented a variety of styles ranging from ornate to simple prose (i.e. Dickens was a popular writer); and iii) it’s good to provide a variety, to show the breadth of fantasy writing.
1) Mervyn Peake: Gormenghast (1946-1959)
A gothic, grotesque, sprawling fantasy epic of manners. Titus Groan is the 77th earl of a degenerating fiefdom centred around a ruinous castle in the midst of a fallen landscape. A laborious and ornately written masterpiece, the Gormenghast books are a chore to get through – but then so is Tolstoy. The brooding atmosphere and examination of feudal decadence and disintegration was influential for many of the fantasies that did not find their inspirational basis: Moorcock, Harrison, and Mieville, for example, all cite Gormenghast as an inspiration.
2) Ursula K. Le Guin: Earthsea (1964-2001)
Here’s one of the few on the SFFWorld list that I agree with. Le Guin’s YA fantasy series of the Earthsea archipelago not only predated Rowling’s Wizard School with a special Wizard (Ged) going from underdog to super awesome wizard guy (it’s hard not to see how Harry Potter borrowed some of the DNA from Wizard of Earthsea), it eventually subverted this by adding other characters, making Ged less important, and getting rid of magic altogether. Oh yeah, and all the characters were people of colour – a decision intentionally made by Le Guin so that non-white readers could have characters that looked like them in a time where fantasy and YA fiction wasn’t providing such representation (predictably the publishers illustrated the characters as white on the covers, regardless of how they were described inside). Added bonus: Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli did an Earthsea movie, which partially corrected the terrible made-for-TV Earthsea series that pissed off the author.
3) Michael Moorcock: The Swords Trilogy (1971)
Leave it to Moorcock, who was cranking out pulp for multiple magazines in the 1960s/70s to write an entire trilogy in a single year. (Angela Carter, friend and fan, once joked that she didn’t know of anyone who could pump out as much fiction as Moorcock.) Although this trilogy forms a part of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythology, I thought it was best to treat it as a standalone since I feel the entire Eternal Champion sequence is, as a whole, quite uneven. Also, on a purely subjective level, this trilogy (as I’ve discussed before) is part of my personal nostalgia.
In any case, The Swords Trilogy (which is written in a plain and popular style) was “grimdark” before that category existed, as violent as it was strange, and eschews the Tolkien categories, or even traditional moral categories. Focused on a protagonist (Corum), the sole survivor of a pre-human race that was genocided by a particular violent group of humans, the trilogy is primarily a revenge narrative where Corum is attempting to hunt and murder those responsible for the genocide. His revenge quest ends up getting him drafted into a war between the gods of Law and Chaos where he is initially a knight of Law intent on killing the gods of Chaos (the eponymous Sword gods) who directed the genocide of his people. After enduring horrendous trials, and travelling between multiple times and dimensions, he not only achieves his revenge but does so by also killing off the gods of both Law and Chaos because, Moorcock being an anarchist and all, “no gods or masters!”
[Bonus: my other favourite series by Moorcock is his Second Ether trilogy, which is much more denser in terms of literary style and focus and experimentation, but I think it is also less representative of what Moorcock is known for.]
4) M. John Harrison: The Viriconium Cycle (1971-1984)
Beginning like pulp fantasy, the Viriconium Cycle eventually reveals itself to be a “dying earth” narrative, but not in that shitty “it was earth all along” kind of way that marks, say, the Shannara Books. It is just too weird and grotesque for that. Especially in the second novel where some alien race of locusts descends upon the disintegrating world, or in the third novel where Viriconium is revealed to be a fiction and the metaphorical fourth wall is shattered. Indeed, the style progresses from popular pulpish writing to experimental fiction through each book. (It also makes you feel bad, by the end of the third book [and in some of the short stories] for liking sword and sorcery.) Harrison is often credited as being one of the inspirations for the so-called “new weird” subgenre, and when you read this series you can see why.
[Harrison’s Kefihuchi Tract Trilogy is also amazing, but it is definitely science fiction.]
5) Samuel R. Delany: Return to Neveryon (1979-1987)
First, let’s get out of the way the fact that the initial publication of some of these books witnessed some of the most horrendous covers in pulp fantasy history, making it look like all four of these books were akin to John Norman’s reactionary Gor novels. Thankfully, they have been republished with better covers so you don’t have to feel guilty reading them in public, unless of course (like me) you happen to have picked up some of the older versions for cheap at 2nd hand book shops.
The Return to Neveryon series is set in a “dawn of history” sword and sorcery setting, a deconstruction of Robert E. Howard’s Hyperborean Age (and other similar settings). All four books are fragmented further according to eleven stories, all of which share characters here and there, and function as connected literary exercises. “For sword and sorcery to be at its best,” Delany argued, “one needs a landscape that is ‘on the brink of civilization’ in an almost scientifically ideal way. It is only here that one can truly play the game.” And this game playing consisted of sword and sorcery meditations on different aspects of literary theory, which was why you could find quotes from theorists such as Said, Spivak, and Foucault beginning each of the eleven stories. But this kind of critical take on pulp fiction is what one would expect from a sci-fi/fantasy author (although this was Delany’s only work of fantasy) who was black and queer.
6) Kaoru Kurimoto: The Guin Saga (1979-2009)
Full disclosure: I have only read the first five books of this series because are the only ones, so far, that have been translated into English. The greatness of Kurimoto’s fantasy series, though, lies in the fact that she conceived of an epic mythology that would span 100 novels! Yes, in 1979 she decided: I’m going to write a fantasy epic that is 100 books long and plan for it. Turns out she ended up going over her planned length by thirty books! Due to the popularity of the series other writers have decided to keep writing more Guin books after she died, but since the author planned this series with a beginning and ending, I think it’s fair to say it ended in 2009 with book 130.
So even though I cannot, due to only five books being available in English, comment on the quality of the series as a whole, what I have read I have found impressive, even if (like Moorcock) it finds its roots in pulp fantasy. As a kind of Japanese fantasy “occidentalism” that conceives of a West European world through the lens of the East, and thus mimics but also distorts, Western style fantasy, it is amazingly rich. The eponymous Guin is an amnesiac warrior with a leapard mask/helmet magically fused to his head roaming a violent world trying to recover his memories and the reason for their loss. The Guin Saga inspired Kentaro Miura’s Berserk manga… which, being a fan of the original anime adaptation of Berserk, is how I found out about Guin in the first place.
7) Jeff Vandermeer: Ambergris (1996-2009)
The first book in the Ambergris series, City of Saints and Madmen, is a collection of short stories, the earliest published in 1996, which exist to make the fantastic city-state of Ambergis the main character: stories of artists, counter-histories a la Howard Zinn, glossaries, and literary theory about fictional art works – the whole thing is very Borgesian. Ambergris is a fungal city-state on the sea, obsessed with squid and the suppression of subterranean horror. The second book, Shriek, is the memoir of Janet Shriek, a curator and art theorist, interposed by edits by her missing brother, the revisionist historian Duncan Shriek. The third book is noirish detective thriller that takes place after the city is reconquested, a la Spain, by its ousted people: fungus guns and fungus surveillance, along with neo-Lovecraftian horror! The writing styles of each book (and short stories within the first book) are wildly different, but everything demonstrates a high literary aesthetic in fantasy.
[I also love Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the first of which Alex Garland is in the process of adapting into a film, but again this series is more science-fiction than fantasy, inspired by the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic.]
8) Steven Erikson: Malazan Book of the Fallen (1999-2011)
Epic fantasy consisting of ten doorstop novels. The first book is sloppy, both in style and characterization (and even has some stunning discontinuities for later books), but the second is bizarrely worlds beyond the first and it just gets better from there. Concerning an epic upheaval in two fictional hemispheres, with the birth of an Empire and its discontents, Malazan is significant in that it is an epic war fantasy become a social novel: there are hundreds of point of view characters, representing all classes and ethnicities and races (so many strange fantastic races as well), who struggle in various areas of the world and even against each other, and no point is valorized as more culturally superior than another. Hell, in the second novel we get a point of view narrative from a rebel historian in the Malazan Empire who wants to write a book from the point of view of the common people – a common people engaged in a desperate death march across a desert as they are ejected from the city and harried by their enemy – and who ends up getting executed.
It also has a history that goes back hundreds of thousands of years, sometimes with alien characters who are that old, that puts other attempts at world-building to shame. Indeed, every setting in the Malazan books feels loaded with history; it is archaeologically dense. Also, characters die a lot, much more than in Martin’s books: by the fourth book, all of the principle characters of the first are dead. The problem, though, is that with so many characters both living and dying, it’s often hard to keep track of who is who and who did what, which is why the who’s-who glossaries in each book are bigger than what you would find in War & Peace or Brother’s Karamazov or Bleak House.
9) China Mieville: Bas-Lag Trilogy (2000-2004)
Personally, I think the fact that this series was not included in the SFFWorld list demonstrates why that list was primarily conservative. These books, beginning with Perdido Street Station crystallized the “new weird” subgenre, thus garnering recognition for writers such as Vandermeer and Valente, which is more than a lot of fantasy – especially if it is just “feudal lite” (Mieville’s term for Tolkien derivatives) or “feudal hard” (what I would classify Martin as) – can claim. And it was still bizarrely best-selling, pumped out by DelRay, charting the lists of mass sellers… Which was why Harrison, in Jeff and Ann Vandermeer’s edited New Weird collection, referred to Mieville as “Battleship Mieville” due to his ability to bash through the walls of genre for fantasy’s misanthropes. And the fact that his books were guided by an unabashadly marxist sensibility (unfortunately Trotskyist, but oh well) is also enough to make these pedestrian-conservative lists to cringe from the horror this wild series elicits.
When I first picked up the paperback edition of Perdido Street Station in 2004, right before I was married, I had a “what-the-fuck-am-I-reading” moment in a good way. Not because of the literary quality of the novel (it had its problems, but these would be rectified in later works – both in this series and after), but because it was entirely mad in a very, very good way. Fantasy setting with magic and impossible races, but in some distortion of the late nineteenth century… but a steampunk fantasy nineteenth century? Still with magic? And what’s with those bug people and Insect Aspect? And AI constructs? And worker unrest? In The Scar there was an entire floating pirate city and that guy with the “possibility sword”… oh yeah, and fucked up mosquito people. In Iron Council there was a stolen train run with magical-genetically remade convicts, golem magic, and rebellions that concluded with the adaptation of Rosa Luxemburg’s last statement, before she was murdered – only changed about to fit the fictional universe.
10) Mary Gentle: First History Sequence (2000-2007)
Oh, Mary Gentle: one of the only authors who takes multiple Masters degrees in different areas of history as research for her novels. That’s fucking dedication, and you can feel that dedication in the books she produces – especially the First History Sequence, which consists of Ash: A Lost History and Ilario: The Lion’s Eye, both of which were divided (in the US) into a variety of smaller novels due to their initial size (over 1100 for Ash, 600 for Ilario).
Since I already reviewed Ash way back on my other blog, I’m not going to bother re-explaining the setting of this alt-history fantasy here in great detail. Suffice to say it’s yet another example of “grimdark” before the term was coined, as visceral as it is fantastic. Also, with both books (or series of books, since the US publication divided them), the play with gender and sex is quite progressive.
[It was a toss up between Gentle’s First History and White Crow sequences, the latter being a decade earlier and now incorporated into the so-called “new weird”. In the end, however, I think First History‘s literary merits, on all levels, surpass those of White Crow because I often felt that the latter novels ended up becoming too obscure and confusing in both style and content.]
I want to conclude this first entry of my top-twenty list by noting that I reached the end of the 1990s before the end of the first ten – and I think this is important. Although I began reading fantasy in the 1980s, before the age of internet SFF fandom, I think it is significant that the majority of series I’m placing on this list were written in the 21st century whereas, inversely, the list produced by SFFWorld primarily references series that originate before the 21st century. Personally I believe that, with the exceptions above, fantasy as a genre really doesn’t come into its literary worth until the 21st Century… it needed to shed a lot of the worst excesses of its pulp origins, its sublimation in mythology, and its conservativism. I see authors such as Moorcock, Le Guin, and Delany as figures that represented a turning point – particularly with Moorcock’s advocacy of the speculative New Wave – that were trying to push for a “getting beyond” both Tolkien and sword-and-sorcery pulp (while still playing with these origin points) in order to let fantasy breath for itself. While the kind of fantasy I dislike (theoretically, I still enjoy consuming brain candy) will continue after the 21st century, at least we’re finding a critical awareness of a kind of fantasy, even world-building epic fantasy, that wants to explore larger vistas of imaginative potential and/or bring literary/poetic discipline to bear on the prose.
In any case, we’ll conclude this list in the next post…