A beginners guide to reading fantasy fiction

Being a small list of stories for the novice fantasy reader to sink their teeth into, before heading off into the choppier waters of the more modern, or even post-modern fantasy out there.

First of all, the recognisably “real world” approach to fantasy…

Chase the Morning – Michael Scott Rohan A gentle introduction to the fiction of the fantastic. It’s rooted firmly in the modern world, although it veers off rapidly into a realm of magic based on the span of human history, travel, folklore and trade. The “secondary world” element of the novel is a shadow world where all of history and myth can be reached by anyone willing to travel far enough and for long enough.

Age of Misrule – Mark Chadbourn A trilogy of novels, about what happens to the modern world when the technology stops working and the old Celtic magic and creatures of folklore come back. Fine novels, with a good blend of action, intrigue and emotional kick. any novel in which a group of heroes try to outrun the Wild Hunt in a transit van has to be worth a look, right?

American Gods – Neil Gaiman You can get away with this one by telling yourself it’s Literature (big L my emphasis). A dark, complex, multi-layered tale of con tricks, coin tricks, dying Gods, a young nation’s borrowed folklore and the impact of the modern world on belief in the supernatural – and vice versa. It also has snappy dialogue and a very kinky sex scene.

Watership Down – Richard Adams A secondary world fantasy in all but name, this book has achieved classic status with some considerable degree of merit, don’t let the fact that it’s about little fluffy bunnies fool you. By turns dark, brutal, haunting, complex, deeply emotional and downright scary in places, this is required reading for anyone who’s genuinely looking to get into fantastic fiction. You won’t regret it.

A Wrinkle in Time – Madeline L’Engle Is it fantasy? Is it Sci-fi? Is it a children’s book? All three questions get a resounding yes for their answer, but just because a book is marketed as being for children, doesn’t mean it has nothing in there for adults to take away from it, even it’s only a sense of awe at the size of the author’s imagination. Find a copy, read it, then be surprised at the complexity and emotional resonance and honesty in a book aimed at children.

And now, for the books which fall into the category of “High” or “Epic” fantasy, as well as “Swords & Sorcery”

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien You don’t have to finish it, it took me three attempts to get through it for the first time and I love this kind of thing, but you should certainly give it a really good go. There has still never been a more fully realised secondary world built in all of fantasy fiction. Almost all of the criticisms levelled at it are true; it’s dry in places, the characters can be one-dimensional, the morality is very black and white, if you don’t skim over them the poems in it can wear you down, the approach to class, race, sex and social standing in the book can seem anachronistic to modern sensibilities and the dialogue is, well, downright laughable in places. It’s also on an epic scale in a way that few stories have managed before or since, sweeping in scope, unparalleled in imaginative achievement and in places the writing is genuinely beautiful, far more often than the occasional clunky sentence or paragraph that the book’s loudest critics always pounce on (the same few examples of such, mostly). What’s more, almost every secondary world fantasy since LotR has been a reaction against, a response to, or an imitation of this book. It helps you to see the genre more clearly, if you have at least a nodding acquaintance with its roots.

A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K. Le Guin One of the first secondary world fantasies to achieve major success after Tolkien, the Earthsea novels are a strange and wonderful mix of earthly, and earthy, characters and high magic. Le Guin has a far better feel for characterisation than Tolkien and while the story burns more slowly, it takes a deeper root into the subconscious of the reader. Less of an adventure story (although there’s plenty of that too) and more of a character study of a young man with great power. Well worth seeking out.

Swords /* – Fritz Leiber “/*” meaning any one of “Against Deviltry”, “Against Death”, “in the Mist”, “Against Wizardry” or “of Lankhmar”. These collections of short stories represent some of the best “Swords & Sorcery” adventure to be had. Away from Tolkien’s “High Fantasy”, in America there was already a booming trade in down and dirty, sword swinging, thieving and womanising adventures and Leiber as good as cornered the market in them back in the old pulp magazine days. If you like your stories fast paced, action packed and filled with dashing heroes, desperate fights, monsters and buxom maidens, then these are the stories for you.

Magician – Raymond E. Feist Another epic fantasy, this time of a slightly different nature. This one borrows heavily from the American swords and sorcery tradition and marries it to the epic style of Tolkien. Other books had tried it before and many more have done so since, but few have done it with such ease and readability as the first novel in the Riftwar saga. A thoroughly enjoyable page turner and worth a couple of quid of anyone’s money.

The First Law – Joe Abercrombie Now that you’ve read the other novels (you have read them all, right?), it’s time to see where modern fantasy lies. It lies in a bloody mess on the floor, where Abercrombie’s characters stabbed it in the testicles and took its money pouch. The First Law is the first series of novels to truly place characters who  feel genuinely real into a story of epic quests and high stakes with the whole world hanging in the balance. Littered with memorable characters, including a corrupt and self-serving torturer, a mass murderer, a spoiled lordling and a woman beater with a murderous temper as the heroes of the story, then you have some notion of what the book is like. Only a notion though. It’s far more brutal, exciting, morally ambiguous and funny than I make it sound.

Now, go forth and read. Hopefully enjoy, too. These books should amuse, delight and enthuse most readers. If nothing else, there’s some serious weight of paper amongst them, so you’ll never be short of a doorstop if the books don’t engage you the way I think they will.

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