I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long while now. The last fantasy book I read was Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, and it made me think a little more critically about reading fantasy in particular. I’ve read many such books over the course of my life, and (almost) always enjoyed them. Some are definitely better than others, to be sure. Now you’ll probably know most of the ones I’m mentioning here, but some may be new to you, and lesser-known. I’ll start with some of the first ones I read, and then go from there.
I almost started with a big series right off the bat for this post, but there were some forerunners. In elementary school, the Redwall series by Brian Jacques was all the rage; all my classmates loved them, and I read quite a few of the books myself. The protagonists were mice, the antagonists cats, and all sorts of other animal friends abounded. It was fun, high fantasy for little kids, without even a hint of irony; Jacques played it completely straight, and it was cool stuff. I wonder how Redwall has fared after all these years. I guess there was some sort of TV adaptation? Had no idea.
I also really enjoyed Watership Down by Richard Adams, which I read in 6th grade while others were reading Redwall, which I’d already read by that point. There was a great ’70s animated adaptation, and also a more recent one on Netflix that I’d like to check out. The story was about rabbits fleeing their doomed home and seeking a new home. Maybe that’s why I like nostos so much? Seeds were planted early, I guess. This is no mere kids’ book, though; it’s intense and adult and often terrifying. Adams created a fictional language, Lapine, for his rabbits, which was also really cool (more seeds planted for the budding philologist in me!).
I also read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger when I was way too young for it. The Dark Tower series is one of my favorites (see below for more), and that was one book that fueled my love for fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. It’s set in a creepy, weird, blighted mirror-world, where the protagonist has all but lost his chivalry and has to rediscover it, along with his humanity, inter alia. More on that later, let’s talk about some of the big series I’ve really enjoyed.
The Wheel of Time (Robert Jordan; posthumously, Brandon Sanderson)
At some point I picked up the first book of the Wheel of Time series, The Eye of the World. I’m not sure why it caught my eye, but I think I enjoyed the cover and just went for it. I jumped into it and found the world really fascinating, vast, and full of excitement, adventure, and also terror. (Odd tidbit: the Eminem & Masta Ace song “Hell Bound” always makes me think of this book for some reason; I’m not sure why.) It’s pretty much your standard sword-and-sorcery plot, with an excessive amount of court intrigue (the “Game of Houses” is really yawn-inducing), and of course there’s The Chosen One ™, destined to save the day (and the world). The main character is named Rand al’Thor, and I’ve often wondered if his name is a nod to Ayn Rand, but who knows. Maybe some of the exegesis hashes that out; I’ve never looked into it.
I started reading the books in the mid-to-late ’90s, in high school, and let me tell you, these books are perfect for horny teenage boys. Lots of talk of heaving bosoms, necklaces “nestled between her breasts,” and other such nonsense. This isn’t just the first book, it’s every goddamn book that has these ridiculous phrases. Women, with a few exceptions, are shrill, whiny, petulant, and generally odious in these books. They’re pretty much all written like that. It’s either that, or they’re chaste, virginal, and can do no wrong. Broad brush, broad strokes. I may be misremembering all this, but I don’t think I am entirely off in my assessment. Of course it was titillating to someone my age, and I thought it was great, but as I read later books and got older, it just became tiresome, old, and most of all, misogynist.
The misogyny in the series became more prevalent as the books wore on. The series ended up being 14 books in total. I read probably the first 9 when I was still in high school, and then the others I revisited when I was older. I felt like I had to finish the series since I’d spent so much time with it already. Maybe that’s silly. It didn’t have a great ending. Jordan passed before he could finish the series, so Brandon Sanderson wrote the final novel, which was broken into three separate novels, based on Jordan’s notes for the ending. He did his best, but really, after so much buildup to Tarmon Gaidon, “The Final Battle,” it was anticlimactic at best.
Ultimately, you may like it, you may not. I wouldn’t recommend it, as there are plenty of better series out there well worth reading (a few will show up on this list). The first book was actually quite good overall, so if you just stop there, maybe that’s worthwhile. I know a lot of people love this series, so if you do, great! I just can’t.
The Sword of Truth (Terry Goodkind)
Another series I had really high hopes for. I picked up a copy of the first book, Wizard’s First Rule, on a whim in the grocery store, if I remember correctly. I think I was on a road trip with my dad and wanted something to read, and it looked interesting. The protagonist, Richard Cypher, meets a beautiful woman on the run from shadowy assassins, and vows to protect her. He also ends up receiving a fabled sword, the eponymous Sword of Truth, and discovers latent magic powers. Chalk up another Chosen One story, naturally.
This book had some interesting characters in it. Richard, Kahlan (the woman he meets), Zedd — the “wizard” — and others were compelling. The villain was somewhat compelling. It would have worked just fine as a standalone story, but Terry Goodkind can’t shake this world for some reason. He wrote 11 mainline novels ending with Confessor (2007), but there are 22 (!) and counting in the series now, with spinoff series and such. It’s just wild. I read up through The Pillars of Creation (2001, book 8), I think, and then caught up on the rest later. It was another series I felt like I needed to finish, for whatever reason.
It’s just … not great. The books get horribly misogynist at times, torturing women especially, but men alike, with graphic descriptions of this torture; I remember there being one scene of a character being held over a fire until the fat began to drip off of him. Just horrifying. I like horror as much as the next person, but this was just gratuitous and unnecessary. There is also a lot of S&M, which isn’t my thing, and seemed out of place in the world, but maybe that was just me.
Then there’s the philosophizing. I too enjoy philosophy, but Goodkind is an unabashed fan of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, which is one of the most selfish, callous philosophies one can subscribe to. My ex-girlfriend used to be a big Ayn Rand fan but eventually she realized how wacky and out there that stuff is. And look at Rand’s acolytes: the modern Republican Party adores her, and murderous capitalists everywhere do. Her Nachleben has been interesting; look at Bioshock, which is a very Rand-tinged cautionary tale at best. But I digress. In Faith of the Fallen, there are entire chapters consisting of speeches that sound like they came directly from a Rand treatise. It makes for really boring fantasy reading at best, and at worst, insidiously creeps into your brain. So yeah, not great.
The problems don’t end there. There’s some subtle and often overt racism, bigotry, and other nastiness. The Emperor of the Old World, Emperor Jagang, comes from the East, and of course it’s East vs. West, the Persian Wars relitigated and refought, in some ways. Slavery abounds in the Old World. Confessor ends with a message of “hey, you’re different, and the world isn’t safe with you in it, so we’ll set you apart in your own little world and never hear from you again. OK, bye!” I remember being so agitated by that ending and how tone-deaf and awful it was. I don’t imagine the later books are any better, and don’t plan to find out.
Ultimately, as with The Wheel of Time, up to you; you may enjoy it and just eat it up. But I can’t ever read them again, and don’t recommend them to anyone.
The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien)
I had heard about Frodo and his trav(ai/e)ls for a long time, and the fabled Ring, of course, but never actually read the books. I, like many others, jumped on the bandwagon when The Fellowship of the Ring movie was announced in 2001. I snapped up the three books, as well as The Hobbit, as soon as I could, and read them voraciously. Tolkien has some wonderful writing, and of course, I can’t help but think my affinity for Classics might be partially due to reading him. But he’s not without his flaws, to be sure.
Most of you probably know the story. The One Ring, Sauron’s magic ring to enslave and subjugate all of Middle-Earth, ends up by chance in the hands of the unwitting Hobbit Frodo, and he is tasked with bringing it to Mount Doom in the dark land of Mordor where it was made. Thus the quest begins. The Hobbit deals with Frodo’s uncle Bilbo’s acquisition of the Ring, and his own dangerous quest beyond his home in the Shire. It’s a wonderful series, and the pre-history detailed in The Silmarillion and elsewhere is really cool as well. Tolkien wrote some beautiful poetry and such for his world, and the world is fully fleshed-out, with a deep mythology and rich history.
The bad, though: more built-in misogyny. A lot of women are totally badass (Arwen, Eowyn, inter alias), but at the same time, despite their prowess in war, they are relegated to the domestic sphere. I remember Eowyn does some wondrous deeds in battle, but then decides to go back home and lay down her shield to be a wife and keep home. Things like that are sad and the characters could be so much more if they were allowed to be. I’m not sure if this was intentional or not (I’ve heard varying accounts), but the Dwarves are thought by many to be anti-Semitic stereotypes at best, also. So it’s not all great. The world is also incredibly, painfully, monotonously white. The only people of color in the world are marauders and raiders from the far South in Harad, and exist only as fodder for the heroes to slay in the final battle. Not great at all. Elves are pretty, blond, and white, like most in Tolkien’s world.
Definitely worth a read, and the movies are worth seeing, but keep these caveats in mind and read/watch critically. Also, skip the Hobbit movies. No reason at all to make 3 massively long movies out of 1 ~300 page book.
The Saga of Recluce (L. E. Modesitt, Jr.)
This is another series I stumbled upon mostly by accident. I’m not sure where I picked it up, but I grabbed the first book, The Magic of Recluce, on a whim and started reading it. It had a typical Tor-style fantasy cover, and looked interesting; a rainy scene with a carriage travelling upon a road. When I read the book, though, I was pleasantly surprised to find it utterly original in many ways.
Some people have derided the series as “Horatio Alger meets sword and sorcery,” as the main character pretty much always discovers he/she has magical powers and is supremely gifted. And yes, that is true to a certain extent. But what I love about these books is that the main character is usually a working-class artisan of some kind, who knows a trade and knows it well, and in working on cultivating that trade, discovers they can use their magical powers to better practice that trade. It doesn’t hurt that their magical powers also allow them to save their town, or sometimes the whole region, from a high-powered magic-wielding enemy.
Modesitt also devised an intricate and fascinating magical system. Magic is divided into “black” and “white,” but they aren’t the traditional divisions in most literature. “Black” signifies “order” magic, magic used to strengthen the bonds in things, used for healing, but also building and constructing. Order magic can also be used to kill, if wielded properly — too much order in a body will lead to death (stasis!). The flip side is “white” magic, or “chaos” magic, which deals with dissolution, entropy, and uncertainty. Practitioners can’t wield too much chaos or their bodies will come apart from the strain; many chaos wizards have shorter lifespans for this reason. Often chaos wizards serve as villains, but some novels focus on chaos wizards as protagonists, which was interesting. There are also “gray” wizards who can wield a bit of both. I found it intriguing that the traditional values of “black” and “white” magic were flipped.
Magic has some sci-fi, spacey origins, too (cf. the 6th volume, Fall of Angels, for more on this), which was really neat. The books are set over a 2,000 or so-year timespan, too, which leads to some great world-building and mythology over time. I started reading this series early in my undergrad, and as Modesitt has put out about a book per year, I’ve kept reading them to this day. I always eagerly await the next book. I know many of the books and plots are similar, but it’s like the Mega Man effect: it’s kinda the same, but it’s also wonderful.
The bad? Actually, not that much of it to be found. There are a ton of strong women in the series, and while it can be aggressively heterosexual at times (generally the main character couples up with someone of the opposite sex at some point), there are shades of queerness in it. One arc has a loving gay couple in a committed relationship as secondary characters, and they’re not portrayed as unnatural or anything. Modesitt skates around intimacy with them, often, as I think he doesn’t know how to handle it, but otherwise he does a good job. I was actually rather impressed overall with that representation, scanty as it is, in a high fantasy series. So yeah.
If you can’t tell, I’ve read Modesitt’s books a lot more recently than the others listed here, so I have more recent thoughts on them. I did a re-read of the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit a couple of years ago, so they’re also fairly fresh. First time I read through those with the Tolkien concordance, too, which was really cool and useful.
In any case, I’d highly recommend Modesitt’s series. Even if you only read The Magic of Recluce, I think you’ll enjoy it. He has a ton of other series as well, fantasy and sci-fi alike, but I always keep coming back to Recluce as it’s a really fascinating world.
The Dark Tower (Stephen King)
“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”
The first words of The Gunslinger, a book I picked up in the backseat of my grandpa’s ’90s Bronco when I was 5 or 6, and I still adore that book and the series. The series follows Roland Deschain, the last in a line of gunslingers who are revered as holy paladins, as he seeks redemption and to enter the eponymous Dark Tower. The first book is incredibly pulpy, melding high fantasy with stark horror, Westerns, and eerie sci-fi. The whole series is a delightful mishmash of those genres, and you’d think it wouldn’t work, but it does, and is often firing on all cylinders.
Along the way, Roland gains a loyal band of followers that become friends, and his quest spans 8 books. I’ve always found them magical and wondrous. The later books get pulpier at times, and also way too meta for some people, but I think they’re just super fun. The world is so vast and packed with interesting lore and mythology, too. I own the Dark Tower Concordance by Robin Furth, King’s research assistant for the later volumes of the series, and I read it straight through and loved it. It’s supposed to be a companion to the series, but after a recent re-read, I just plowed through that book and found it a treasure-trove on its own. I imagine a re-read with that nearby would be really cool.
The series isn’t without its cons, though. As a friend recently remarked about King’s work, “he sure loves his magical Black people.” One character, Odetta Holmes, a Black woman introduced in The Drawing of the Three, is portrayed very stereotypically. It was written in the late ’80s, but that doesn’t excuse it. Later books are kinder to her, and she’s actually one of the best characters in the series, but that has never sat well with me how she was introduced. I can’t think of a lot of misogyny in the series, but at the same time, I have some blinders with this series, as it’s been one of my favorites for a long time. On my next read-through, I will have to read more critically and see if any of that stands out.
I’d highly recommend checking out the series. King considers it the crown jewel of his writing career, his magnum opus, and many, if not all, of his works tie in somehow to the world of The Dark Tower, which is really fun as well. The Marvel Comics series covers a lot of prequel material, starting with the frame story in book 4, Wizard and Glass, and fills in a lot of the gaps that are only hinted at in the books. I really enjoyed collecting those issues when they were coming out. I think they did comic versions of at least The Gunslinger, too, and perhaps the rest of the series; I haven’t really followed it that closely.
His Dark Materials & The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman)
I came to this series way late. I remember hearing about the first book, The Golden Compass (the way-cooler original British title was Northern Lights) and thinking it sounded interesting, but I didn’t read it until years later during my Ph.D. The series follows Lyra, a bright, adventurous girl raised at Jordan College in Oxford, in a world not dissimilar to our own, and her inheritance of the titular “golden compass,” the intricate machine called an alethiometer. Of course, there’s plenty more to the series than that. Treks to the far North with its lovely aurora borealis, sinister experiments on children, and whispers about original sin. There are three books, and then a followup trilogy called The Book of Dust, which is also fabulous.
I remember hearing from my ex-girlfriend that she liked the ideas in the books, but that they were poorly-written and poorly-executed. I wouldn’t agree with that — I enjoy the writing, and really enjoyed the books overall. Pullman has said that he was very influenced by Milton’s Paradise Lost in writing the series, and really: it’s atheism for kids, teaching them to question authority (The Authority!) and make their own way in life. I grew up Presbyterian and then Catholic, but I am very atheist now, so these are like love letters to atheism in my mind. The Magisterium is very much like the Catholic Church, and is the enemy in general.
I got my wife into the books as well, and she adored them. We both loved them so much that we worked lines from the last book, The Amber Spyglass, into our wedding. This is the first book series my wife and I shared as a couple, so it will always be very special for that reason if nothing else.
The Book of Dust is also wonderful, but incredibly melancholy. I voraciously read the first two novels and can’t wait for the third and final one. I don’t want to spoil anything, though, but the first novel is a prequel to His Dark Materials, and the second is a sort of sequel.
I can’t think of anything particularly bad off the top of my head in these books. There are female villains, for sure, but I don’t think they are portrayed misogynistically. There are not a lot of people of color in the books, but happily enough, there are a number of people of color in the TV adaptation by HBO. Do yourself a favor and don’t watch the terrible Golden Compass movie adaptation; just skip straight to the HBO series after you’ve read the books. They just wrapped season 2 and season 3 is greenlit, so I am confident that it’ll go well. I was really happy with season 1, and can’t wait to start season 2.
Highly recommend reading these books. Have your kids read them, too. There are a lot of adult themes, but they are written in a way kids can appreciate and understand them as well. I’m not saying it’s going to make your kids atheists, but hey, would that really be so bad?
A Telling of Stars & The Silences of Home (Caitlin Sweet)
These were two exquisitely-crafted fantasy novels. High, epic fantasy, set in a wondrously interesting world, and often heartbreaking. I found out about her work almost by accident. Her husband is author Peter Watts, whose Blindsight and its “side-quel” Echopraxia are absolutely terrifying hard sci-fi. I loved both of those books, and when doing some research on him, I found out his wife is a writer as well. I liked the name of A Telling of Stars and resolved to seek it out somehow. I couldn’t find it in the library, sadly, so I bought a copy online and read it.
A Telling of Stars follows Jaele, whose family is slaughtered by a surprise attack by invaders from across the sea. She goes on a quest for revenge, but meets all sorts of interesting people along the way. A lot of it, as I mentioned, was actually heartbreakingly sad and poignant. The world is small but exquisitely detailed and feels real and lived-in. It’s a relatively short book, but really dense at the same time.
The Silences of Home (another fabulous title) is a prequel, and gives some backstory on the invaders and the founding of the kingdom detailed in the first book. It’s also heartbreaking and beautiful at times, and a really great read. I don’t have a lot of words to describe it, but I’d definitely recommend reading it. Both books are a meditation on the merits and pitfalls of vengeance, and the loss and restoration of home(land)s, themes I’m very familiar with from studying Classics.
If you can find a copy in your library, go for it, but these are worth buying.
The Far Kingdoms (Allan Cole & Chris Bunch)
I picked up this book randomly in 2nd & Charles years ago since it looked interesting, but didn’t actually read it until earlier this year. It’s overall a pretty standard fantasy book, this time involving a rich, spoiled merchant’s son who decides to go on a quest to the fabled Far Kingdoms far to the east. The main character is really rather unlikable, and the central love story is really quite boring. The quest itself isn’t even that exciting. The society set up in the town he grew up in very much resembles Sparta or some other Greek city-state, but is not half as interesting.
There are more books in this series, but I’m not interested in reading them. There were some creepy insinuations about the main character and his being almost incestuously close to his big sister. She ends up being a lesbian, but she’s portrayed very stereotypically, unsurprisingly considering the book was written by two generic dudes. There was just weirdness in the book in general, and by the end of it, I had had enough.
I wouldn’t recommend this one. Read any of the others before this one, and really, anything else.
Dragon Prince trilogy (Melanie Rawn)
I think I heard about this series either from someone on the Fediverse or perhaps on the internet in general. I can’t remember. I ended up finding the first two books used and buying them, but only read the first book, Dragon Prince. This is unrelated, by the way, to the Netflix series, which I’d never heard of.
A prince’s son, Rohan (cf. LOTR), is about to inherit the desert kingdom of Stronghold. He meets Sioned, one of the Sunrunner mages, and she quickly becomes his betrothed. She fawns all over him, and in many ways only aspires to be married to him. It’s aggressively heterosexual and often quite boring. There were some interesting spots in it, but by the end of it, I was ready to move on to a different series and didn’t want to read the rest.
I don’t have a ton to say about this particular book. I didn’t really enjoy it, despite finishing it, and I wouldn’t recommend it. The world wasn’t all that interesting, and the story was slow-paced. I had high hopes, because I’ve wanted to read more women fantasy authors, but I guess I’ll have to look elsewhere. I want to read some Ursula K. LeGuin or others. I remember when I was a kid, Anne McCaffrey was all the rage, but I don’t remember reading much of her stuff.
I’m sure it has an audience and many people like it, but it just wasn’t my thing.
In any case, thank you for reading. This is a first draft and who knows, it may undergo some changes if I have other thoughts I want to add. But I wanted to get this down and share my thoughts with all of you. Do you have any fantasy authors/series or other series to suggest? Please let me know as I’m always up for book recommendations.