First written as a serial in 1911, A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs was soon after published in novel form in 1917. While the story is more adventure than science fiction, it was this Mars-based pulp that influenced the men and women who would later fuel the SF renaissance of the mid-Twentieth Century--writers like Ray Bradbury, Carl Sagan, and Arthur C. Clarke.
PRINCESS follows the adventures of John Carter, Confederate War veteran, from his mysterious transportation to the planet Mars, to being captured by the green men, to meeting the lovely Princess Dejah Thoris of Helium. The storytelling itself compared to today's standards is nothing spectacular, and in fact the 'science' is pretty silly, but you have to admire Burroughs' imagination. At the time he wrote it, there was scientific speculation about the potential for life on Mars, and it must have captured his attention because he came up with some wild ideas about the people and cultures who could be inhabiting the red planet.
PRINCESS was Burroughs' first published work, even before the original TARZAN OF THE APES (which is also worth reading). He went on to write ten more Mars books, but PRINCESS is the one that started it all, and fortunately it's a quick, fun read. It doesn't hurt, either, that John Carter is a likable swashbuckler.
The Kindle edition is free, but it's easy to find a print version at your library or at most booksellers.
Michael Whelan did cover art for the '80s mass market reprinting of the Mars series, including one of A PRINCESS OF MARS that I love, not only because it's beautiful, but because it evokes the feel of the book and its setting. You can see it on his website at MichaelWhelan.com, and I did find the version you can buy with his cover. (Warning: Whelan's ERB art does have semi-nudity.)
Recommended age: 12 and up--the content is tame and readable by younger audiences.
Violence: Scattered here and there, but nothing intense or very graphic.
Sex: People on Mars wander around unclothed, however Burroughs doesn't reference naked body parts or sex.
Happy Birthday, Ray Bradbury! He turned 90 on August 22nd (just this past weekend), and what better way than to celebrate one of his classics? A prolific writer of novels, short stories, essays, and other works, Bradbury originally published THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES in 1950. It's a short story collection about the human colonization of Mars--but it's not your traditional collection.
Originally published in magazines as shorts, Bradbury gathered the stories in one book by stringing them along chronologically using brief vignettes to tie them together. At first it will seem disjointed and odd, but Bradbury's crisp prose and sense of humor is engaging, and good enough reason to continue reading until the story finally grabs you. If you've read A PRINCESS OF MARS, then you'll have a few laughs when you recognize Bradbury's nods in Burroughs' direction.
Bradbury claims that THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES isn't science fiction, instead calling it fantasy because it depicts events that would never happen. If I were to label it, I'd be tempted to call it horror because of its psychological elements, fantasy for the ludicrous situations, and science fiction for the warnings about the future that this genre often portends. Even then, if you read beyond the surface you'll see Bradbury's post-war social commentary, and fortunately his satire still feels relevant today.
There are a few different versions, including reprints that change the first Mars landing from 1999 to thirty years after (the dates really are irrelevant, except in relation to each other) and some additional stories written after the first printing. No edition is better than the other, so it's up to you whether you prefer to read the original or a 'complete' version. THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES should be easy to find at even small libraries.
Recommended Age: 12 and up for content, although most kids won't get the social commentary and humor until their late teens.
Language: Some, but it's minor.
Violence: Very little, and when there is violence it's not graphic.
Science Fiction & Steampunk
It seems like we neglect SF a tad on this site. We treat it, generally, like that little kid on the playground that follows you around like a lost puppy. The thing is, SF has some pretty solid roots, and many of the great, early writers of SF also have huge influences in Steampunk.
H.G. Wells - THE TIME MACHINE
Time travel machines. If this doesn't scream SF to you, you probably need to get your head examined. Published in 1895, THE TIME MACHINE is a prime example of early SF that doesn't seem to ever grow old. Oh sure, writers now days have come up with slicker looking versions of time travel; it's a theme that won't go away. From Connie Willis' BLACKOUT, to the TV show Lost, time travel is always being tinkered with. So why is THE TIME MACHINE still good? Because it deals with a character's reactions to traveling through time and witnessing the future rather than focusing on technology for technology's sake. Wells is known as one of the "Fathers of Science Fiction," but he also is a heavy influence in the realm of Steampunk. Much Steampunk relies on machines that have drawn inspiration from those that Wells describes in his work. Heck, even WoW borrows the aesthetic values of Wells' imagination.
Jules Verne - TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
What is SF if not the imagining of the future? Verne wrote about space, air, and underwater travel before practical applications of those technologies were even realistic. Considered another of the "Fathers of Science Fiction" along with H.G. Wells, released TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES in french in 1869. Again, what makes this story a Classic is it's focus on character, and motivations. Why does a person do what he/she does? Verne has inspired countless works. From THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, to Steampunk novels that use his ideas of submersibles, Verne should be read by everyone.
Where do we start? The Martian Chronicles? FAHRENHEIT 451? We could go on to describe why his works are great and awesome, but we'll leave that to an Elitist Classics review of the the Martian Chronicles coming shortly. All anyone needs to know is that the guy is nothing short of a Science Fiction giant, and legend. Of course, Bradbury doesn't consider himself an SF author. At one time he said that the Martian Chronicles was Fantasy, not SF. Hmm...maybe that's why we like his stuff so much more...
Edgar Rice Burroughs - The Barsoom/Mars Series
Come on, you knew this was coming. Pulp SF? Burroughs? They are practically synonyms. The first Mars novel was was published in 1917, and starred the now famous John Carter. Burroughs is credited as inspiration for a few people you may have heard of; Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft, and Moorcock. To us, what Burroughs represents is the SF that is full of adventure, and far-flung ideas of exploration. It seems that some SF is all about making the reader feel like they need a Physics Degree to understand the first page. Burroughs was about giving readers an adventure they could sink their teeth into.
We could go on, and on, and on. Philip K Dick anyone? We could talk about Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, and Simmons. We could even talk about Mark Twain. Or how about Hugo Gernsback, for whom the Hugo awards are named? Edgar Allen Poe? Yup, he could be included here too. When you look at modern Science Fiction, and also Steampunk, realize that it all was inspired by someone. It might just change your views on the genre, knowing its roots.
It certainly has for us.
Nick & Steve here in a brief intro. Hopefully you, our faithful readers, are enjoying our Elitist Classics Series. One of our new reviewers, Vanessa, thought it would be a solid idea to occasionally write up a brief review of some of the Classics. We loved the idea, so here is the first one...
***Elitist Classics: DRACULA***
Before there was Sookie Stackhouse and Bill Compton, before vampires that glitter in sunlight, before even Anne Rice or Brian Lumley, there was Count Dracula.
If you haven't read the original Bram Stoker novel, it's possible when you think of DRACULA it is that the Victorian era novel is a prudish old fashioned fuddy duddy that couldn't possibly still be relevant today.
You couldn't be more wrong.
Today's explosion of vampire novels, movies, and TV began somewhere, and it was with Bram Stoker's DRACULA. It wasn't the first vampire book ever published, even though it was written in 1897, but Stoker's folklore research mixed with adventure made it the most relevant. And although Stoker didn't invent vampires, it's his version of the undead that has captured the imagination of readers, authors, and screenwriters ever since.
Told in letters, journal entries, and newspaper articles, DRACULA begins with Jonathan, a young solicitor who visits the count in his crumbling castle in the Carpathian Mountains to help him purchase property in England. From the moment Jonathan arrives it's obvious that things aren't quite right, and too late realizes he's a prisoner.
The story is bizarre, which I expected. But I didn't expect it to be so creepy, since I had assumed that a Victorian novel read by today's audience couldn't be that scary. But it's the creepiness that draws the reader in to the horrifying predicament that Jonathan, his fiance, and friends find themselves in. Stoker's novel is worth reading alone for the story and its fascinating characters--doubly so because of the influence it's had on the vampire stories that came after it.
DRACULA is public domain, so it should be easy to find a cheap copy to purchase or else it's readily available at even small libraries. There are also several editions with commentary worth looking at.
If DRACULA is still too old for you, check out INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by Anne Rice, which was first published in 1976. You can thank today's crop of vampires-with-a-conscience on her; but it's also a fascinating first-hand account of what it really means to become the monster that is vampire. And, like DRACULA, the content is relatively tame (especially when compared to a lot of today's urban fantasy).
Recommended Age: 14+
Violence: Your typical vampire staking and beheading, but nothing gruesome.
Sex: Some scenes could be interpreted as sensual, but on the whole the story is unexplicit and doesn't refer directly to sex.
Elitist Classics Part 2
Horror & Mystery
While Horror and Mystery typically have their own sections in a bookstore, we’ve heard it argued that Horror and Mystery are styles as opposed to genres. To an extent we agree, and certainly we see aspects of both across all the genres. After all, some of the best fiction involves blending genres and styles.
We are big fans of both Horror and Mystery. We are talking about Michael Connelly’s straight up Detective Mysteries, or even Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series that takes a detective-like element and throws it with some serious magic and mythology. We are referring to Brian Lumley’s pure Horror, or Monster Hunter International is an awesome combination of B-movie Horror and Urban Fantasy. The point is, all of these awesome stories come from somewhere. Keep in mind that the following picks are not an all-inclusive list. There are a ton more, and feel free to give your personal favorites a shout-out in the comments.
Sherlock Holmes--Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Come on. You had to know this was going to be on the list. Holmes is one of our favorite characters in all fiction, and perhaps our absolute favorite in Mystery (Hercule Poirot is up there too though). Thankfully the new movie is causing people to get interested in Holmes again. Holmes is an incredible and flawed character that it is near impossible to grow tired of. Our best advice? Go do what Steve did and pick up the three-volume set of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. 3000 pages of awesomeness that have had subtle and completely obvious influences (you did read THE AFFINITY BRIDGE right?) throughout nearly all genres.
Bram Stoker’s DRACULA
Maybe you feel like this is too easy a pick. That’s OK, it was a no-brainer. We aren’t going to get into too much detail here since Vanessa is going to give us all an Elitist Classics Review of it shortly. Let’s be honest. Can you go anywhere without all sorts vampire tales jumping (or sadly, sparkling) at you? We have wondered if the method for the telling of DRACULA is partially what influenced the style of Christopher Priest’s THE PRESTIGE (one of the most awesome novels EVAH!!). Look to Vanessa’s review for what makes this story so interesting.
THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE by Robert Louis Stevenson
One of our favorites. There is so much psychology that can be discussed here. Or Mystery. Or Horror. You’ve gotta love Victorian Horror. Written in the late 1800’s you’d be hard pressed to find a story that better describes the horror of a double-life. What’s even cooler is that Stevenson wrote it based on vivid dreams he was having. The characters of Jekyll & Hyde have been used as inspiration, and have literally been used in themselves in works of fiction. Fan-freaking-tastic.
We simply refuse to talk about the fathers of Horror and Mystery without mentioning Lovecraft. His works are bizarre, bleak, imaginative, depressing, scary, and SO unbelievably engrossing. Now we have mentioned Lovecraft before in our Fantasy 202 post, so we won’t keep beating the dead horse. Go grab The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, and treat yourself you one of our favorite all-time authors.
Alexandre Dumas’ THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK and THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO
Some of the best revenge stories you will ever read. We once heard Dan Wells (author of the Horror novels, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER and MR. MONSTER) talk about how people used to ask about the Horror novels that inspired him. He said that the Horror he read wasn’t what people expected, and specifically mentioned Dumas’ works. Think about the circumstances in those incredible novels. Those are some seriously horrific events. We also get some mystery and adventure in them. Full of win. They should be required reading in all schools.
A few other notables we won’t talk about too much, but that we really felt like we should mention:
FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelly
THE TELL-TALE HEART by Edgar Allen Poe (and really most all of his poetry)
Robert E. Howard’s Horror
THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY by Oscar Wilde
HAMLET & OTHELLO by Shakespeare
Good Fantasy and SF novels (or really any novel for that matter) are not created in a vacuum. Our favorite authors were inspired or influenced by authors whose work came first. Those influences were, in turn, influenced by even more ancient works.
A few weeks back, we were having a discussion with our good friend, and occasional contributor, Rob. Somehow we ended up discussing this very point, and Rob said something like, "Man, a post about these REAL classics would be great." We decided that it was indeed a great idea, and the hunt for material for these "Elitist Classics" was soon underway.
As it turns out, there were a lot of Classics.
So, in a series of posts that will be added to our University of Fantasy (and SF) canon, here are the "Classics" according to us. This post will figure more on Fantasy. Keep in mind, this isn't a limited list. There are dozens of older works that could be included here, but we have chosen to limit it just a tad.
J.R.R Tolkien: THE HOBBIT and THE LORD OF THE RINGS
Many readers and authors of fantasy point to the works of Tolkien as one of the influences that weighs the heaviest on the genre. Certainly there had been other works prior to Tolkien's, but his is what made it popular and accepted. As we have mentioned before, THE HOBBIT is actually our preferred novel of Tolkien's, but THE LORD OF THE RINGS is awesome in a darker, more serious way.
C.S. Lewis: THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
Lewis and Tolkien were contemporaries and friends (there were, in modern terms, in the same writing group). Lewis' NARNIA series has captured the imaginations of millions of readers over the years. Look, if you haven't read this series, you must be living under a rock...
Mervyn Peake: GORMENGHAST
Along with Tolkien and Lewis, Peake's Gormenghast series is widely pointed to in terms of influential works. Most of this series takes place in a huge and dominating castle which is almost a character in itself (Hogwarts has nothing on Castle Gormenghast). One could argue that the more "realistic" of todays fantasy has its roots in Peake's creation, as there are no other races besides humans, and no magic in this series.
Where do you think Tolkien got a huge chunk of his inspiration? Both Tolkien and the composer Wagner took their inspirations from this epic German poem. Dwarves, dragons, treasure, and a Ring. Yup, it's all here in this 13th century (though it is based on heroic motifs and people from the 5th and 6th centuries) text.
Robert E. Howard: CONAN
Yes, we are well aware that he wrote other stuff besides Conan in his short life (committed suicide when he was 30). Essentially, he created the Sword and Sorcery type of fantasy that has lately seen a resurgence. From Moorcock, to Leiber, to Jordan, to the modern writers, Howard is arguably on of fantasy's most influential authors. Personally, we enjoy his horror just as much as his fantasy.
THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH
We attended a panel at World Fantasy where Steven Erikson, David Drake, and Jeff VanderMeer (awesome group of people, yeah?) were asked the question, "If you couldn't pick Glen Cook as a main influence for non-conciliatory fantasy, who would you pick?" They unanimously chose GILGAMESH. This is as ancient as it gets, taken from tablets in Mesopotamia. If you ever took Art History, chances are you (like us) read this epic. It is incredible.
In future installments of the Elitist Classics, we'll talk about Steampunk, SF, Horror, and Mystery.
Chime in on what other works you think should be considered Fantasy Classics.
This is it, what you've all been waiting for. What Steve and I think are the best books of Fantasy right now. The books that once you've trained yourself for them, that you should not go without reading. Well, maybe you haven't been waiting for it because if you're half as smart as we, reluctantly, give you credit for, than you have probably already guessed the books, or at least the authors.
So why did we wait so long? Well, let's face it; most people will feel like the 301 level of fantasy a pretty steep hill if they aren't prepared. There is a reason we want you to read the 101 and 201 levels first (and yes even the 102 and 202). Those books give you the building-blocks of what fantasy is. If you're already a fantasy reader, then these lessons can be taken and used as checklists of must-reads, because our tastes is just THAT good. If haven't been a fantasy reader, (because you must be by now if you have made it to 301) and you've followed our guidelines, you may be prepared for these novels.
The learning curve jumps significantly here, don't freak out. Though we picked different novels, we are, in reality, pretty unanimous on all our choices here. That should tell you something. Great minds and all that...
One thing to note here: these books are a lot more mature in terms of content. Most of them have more language than the previous books we recommended, more sexual content, and perhaps more violence. Refer to our reviews of these novels for the specifics. Don't feel bad if the content is too much for you; that's why there are a ton of 200-level novels. Read these novels, feel them out, and decide if they are too much for you.
However, this is where the best fiction in the SF&F genre lies, and if you let yourself get sucked into the world-building and characters, you might just find yourself (like we were) in awe of the stories told in these novels.
Fantasy has changed over the past decade. In the 90's we were swamped with either Jordanesque fantasy or with the last vestiges of Tolkienesque fantasy. There really was no variety, and I think that hurt the genre. Martin was really ahead of his time when he wrote A GAME OF THRONES, and I think he really set the tone for what fantasy has become. He decided that fantasy readers were intelligent. I know, crazy huh?
Rather than treat readers like they are a dumb subspecies of the human race (read: Goodkind), authors began writing fantasy novels that made people think. The learning curves got steeper and steeper. When I think of fantasy 301, I think of the fantasy novels that make all others simple, and somewhat dull, by comparison. In my picks, the characters are a lovely shade of gray, the plots aren't clear-cut, the villains truly brutal (until you see their PoV, and then you can't help but love them as well), and the worlds amazingly imaginative and deep.
For my picks, I decided to go with authors who have been around for a bit. You could say they are all established, and they paved the way for the newer authors that Nick gets into below (in some cases, the authors I chose literally helped get some of Nick's picks published). These are the authors that make me excited to sit down and read. They are the authors that make me stare anxiously at the clock while I'm at work because I can't wait to read the next chapter.
Gardens of the Moon -- Steven Erikson
A Game of Thrones -- George R.R. Martin
Perdido Street Station -- China Miéville
Night of Knives -- Ian C. Esslemont
(Yes, I'm kinda cheating here. This is part of the same series as Gardens of the Moon, but written by a different author. It's a shared-world project that Erikson and Esslemont have going on. You have to understand, the Malazan series, for me, is the best work in print. Period.)
Instead of going into detail about each book, like I have done in the previous University entries, I am going to keep this short and sweet. I have reviewed books by every one of these authors and have said what needs to be said about them and their work individually. As a whole, this group of authors comprises what I feel is the literary equivalent of the rat pack (or brat pack if you prefer). When a reader thinks about the fantasy genre, these are the names that should pop into their head immediately behind Tolkien and Jordan. Others may disagree with me, but I do have my reasons.
One, they are the current face of fantasy. Therefore they are the authors who are the driving force determining where the genre will go (like Grandpa T and Jordan did before them). Two, they know their craft. For being so newly published they show incredible depth in their characters and their plotting. Finally, though there are still many fans of the high sorcery and adventure fantasy that many of us grew up with, I believe that an astonishing and growing number of us readers are looking for something harder and grittier, while not explicit or gratuitous, but with a feeling of immediacy in the writing (Picky right?). We are looking for critical thinking and philosophy in our entertainment. We want books with all of these things, without giving up what fantasy is. These authors deliver exactly that.
They are fantasy books in every way shape and form, but they are also books that beg the reader to ask questions while never missing a beat to thrill us, the readers.
The Blade Itself -- Joe Abercrombie
The Darkness That Comes Before -- R. Scott Bakker
The Lies of Locke Lamora -- Scott Lynch
The Stormcaller -- Tom Lloyd
(Yes I used multiple covers for these books. Get off my back. They are all just way too cool not to show off.)
So, you thought we were done with the University of Fantasy? For shame. We just needed to give all of you readers time to catch up with all the great novels we'd already suggested to you.
Coming up with lists for Fantasy 202 was actually a challenge for us. Novels just didn't come readily to mind. What ended up helping us was when we were discussing people's aversion to Horror. You see, people have this mental block when it comes to Horror. They all tend to think that Horror is all blood and gore, or that it is all crappy campy like Scream (Did you know they have another Scream movie in the works? So absurd...). The reality is that that good Horror should be able to scare you with no violence. It should be able to scare you with ideas and suspense. Also, what people need to realize is that Horror is just another face of Fantasy. Urban Fantasy? Could be called Urban Horror. Dark Fantasy? Some of it could be called Horror Fantasy. You get the drift. Horror has made a huge impact on the fantasy genre. So, our lists will have some good classic Horror mixed in with some other fun stuff! Enjoy!
Way of the Wolf:
Nick got me to read these novels when we first met, and I'm glad I listened to him. Urban Fantasy in a future where an alien race (part of which are vampire-ish creatures) have taken over the world. Everything is a mix of civil war, world war, and modern eras. EE Knight has created an amazing main character in this series, and gives us an near-perfect lesson in how a character should progress over the course of a series.
The Color of Magic:
Not many people get humor right in the fantasy genre. Oh sure, there may be some funny lines in a novel here and there, but not a full novel dedicated to humor, parody, and satire. I have a huge level of respect for Terry Pratchett (I know!! A person with the name Terry who isn't terribad!!). He manages to not only write with extreme skill, but he can make a reader laugh with seemingly little effort. THE COLOR OF MAGIC is widely considered to be the least of his novels, but it was my introduction to Discworld. Some of you readers emailed and asked us why we didn't include it in Fantasy 102. To really understand what makes Pratchett so great, you need to have read a bit in the genre (and even outside the genre). Sure you will laugh a little without this background knowledge, but with it, you will be awed by the genius of Pratchett's work.
Brian Lumley got his start writing stories in Lovecraft's classic Cthulhu Mythos (see Nick's picks below). My theory is that Lumley took Cthulhu, made it mini, and put it in people as a parasite that turns them into a vampire. How awesome is THAT! NECROSCOPE follows the horrors faced by Harry Keogh, a guy with ESP who can talk with the dead. The vampires in this novel (and series) are true monsters. There is no redemption for them. They won't sparkle at you or play baseball with you. They will destroy you body and soul...if you're lucky. If you want a true example of the monster that is Vampire, Necroscope is the place to start.
Interview With The Vampire:
Moody, dark, and evocative, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is, for many, the penultimate vampire tale, surpassing even Dracula or Nosferatu. The mechanism for telling this story is what I love most about it. Yes there are vampires who prey on humans, spread their curse, etc., and all of that is fantastic but what really draws me to it is how human the vampires are depicted. Anne Rice does this through a first-person confession of one of the vampires. For anyone who hasn't read this series, it should be a must-add to your reading list. (You thought I was going to say something about one of the two authors-who-shall-not-be-named, didn't you?)
The premise is at once bizarre, ambitious, and surreal. Old Gods that migrated to America, with their worshippers, are preparing for Gaiman's equivalent of Ragnarok. This book will etch itself into your memory forever. The book is not without drawbacks, however it very quickly draws you in to the experiences of it's main character, Shadow and his God-in-disguise companion Wednesday (Odin). The book also resonates quite quickly with non-fantasy readers, as it is Gaiman's thoughts and reflections of the American identity. Ever thought a person's dead wife couldn't make for an interesting character? This book proves you wrong.
The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre:
Whew...what a title. While it would have been nice to pick out one of the stories included and give it my thumbs up, since all of them really are unique and distinct, I couldn't do it. Lovecraft's power lies, not only his his artistry and ability to create horrific, extremely moody situations, but the myriad of possibilities he created. Lovecraft is the master of horror, and someone to whom nearly all horror writers can trace some inspiration to.
Your elite instructors here at the University of Fantasy are back and offering a new course. Like the 101 section we both, separately, came up with our suggestions for the class reading assignments. As you will see Steve and I ended with very differing approaches, again both viable, to the 201 section. While Steve's choices are, mainly, the threads of the larger tapestry in the broad fantasy genre, mine are the best examples I could find for three of the big sub-genres in fantasy. One of the main things to keep in mind while reading over our picks is that the 201 and 202 level fantasy is generally as far as the typical reader will go. Why? Well, because our 300 level picks tend to be either very high-minded and/or very mature. Read these novels, and then decide if you trust us enough (which you should) to read the higher picks we will be recommending shortly.
Mistborn: The Final Empire:
Written by my good friend, Brandon Sanderson, MISTBORN is a story about a small group's efforts to overthrow a ruler who has been in power for 1,000 years. It is the first novel in a trilogy, and carries with it one of the most unique magic systems out of any fantasy novel. It is my favorite work of Brandon's to date, and I pushed this novel with all my book selling strength when I was managing a bookstore. The age didn't matter. If the person liked fantasy, they got this book as a recommendation. The reason it is in the 201 category? It is a more intelligent novel than the 101 variety, and it is truly appreciated after you have read the basics and understand why MISTBORN is so different.
Yet another unique magic system. RUNELORDS is the first in an epic fantasy series by David Farland. Once again, having a basic understanding of the fantasy genre will help you appreciate this novel (and series) much more. Dave Farland is another author I have met and talked with, and he is one of the nicer authors you will meet. His novels are great for teens and above, and I highly recommend you give them a shot.
In Heroic Fantasy, there are certain authors one thinks of. You have your classic David Gemmell, your ultra simple (yet foundational...yes I made up that word) R.A. Salvatore, and your dark and complex Joe Abercrombie. Where both Gemmell and Salvatore are your 100-level Heroic Fantasy, and Abercrombie is your 300-level, James Barclay's DAWNTHIEF nicely bridges the that 200-level gap. I was seriously impressed with Barclay's first novel (which we reviewed here), and it will make a great addition to your collection of novels. Out of all the novels mentioned here by either Nick or myself, this one has the most mature content.
The Black Company:
Some of the best Military fantasy you will read. It is gritty and visceral and is a perfect entry into that sort of darker fantasy that I enjoy so much. It is hard for me to come up with a better description for this series than Steven Erikson did, "Reading his stuff was like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote." The books are fast reads, descriptive and interesting.
The Eye of the World:
I feel just as obligated to put this series here in the 201, as I did to put The Hobbit, and for much of the same reasons. I am not the raving WoT fanboy I used to be, after having been exposed to authors like Bakker, Lynch, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Lloyd, Martin, etc., but like I said for The Hobbit, I stand in absolute respect and awe for what Robert Jordan has done for the genre. If Tolkien is the grandpa of fantasy, Jordan is the fun uncle you are always excited to go visit. He changed the face of Fantasy and shattered the barrier that Tolkien's wedge cracked. Anyone reading Fantasy needs to read Jordan. I admit a certain amount of hesitancy to include a 14 (planned, with Brandon Sanderson finishing the last three) book series, with plenty of slow parts, for the 201 section, instead of the 202, or 301 (uh oh. Was that some foreshadowing? Dun-dun-Dun!) but in order to appreciate the diversity of Fantasy, I think readers should see what the sub-genre Epic Fantasy really means.
The Name of the Wind:
If The Black Company is the epitome of Military Fantasy, The Eye of the World the epitome of Epic Fantasy, then The Name of the Wind is the epitome of Traditional Fantasy. Many of the stories in fantasy include some sort of coming-of-age tale, and Patrick Rothfuss refined that recipe to make something astonishingly entertaining. It's more thoroughly researched--to a perfectionist standard--and therefore a more intelligent read than some of the other options. The other reason this book is included here is that is way newer than my other selections. Glen Cook and the late Robert Jordan's series are 20 years, give or take, old. Rothfuss brings a touch of the younger, fresher fantasy to my 201 selections.
Ready for a little continued education? After making our individual picks for Fantasy 101, we realized there were quite a few novels and sub-genres that we weren't been able to include. Steampunk, Urban Fantasy, YA Fantasy, etc. There are tons of novels that can help ease a person into fantasy without getting so...epic. Here are some quick definition links for you:
So, in an effort to introduce you all to a wider variety of Fantasy, here are six more picks.
The Book of Three: (Middle-Grade/Young Adult)
When I was young, in the 2nd Grade, I was hungry for books to read. Looking back, I believe that was when I decided that there was more to life than recess. I looked up at my parents' bookshelves and say a neat row of well-worn books by Lloyd Alexander. My mom handed down the first of them to me--THE BOOK OF THREE--and told me to read them...I expect it was a bit of an experiment to see what I would do. I read the novel, and the ones that followed, and thus began my love of the fantasy genre. It is only now that I realize what made Alexander's novels so entertaining. The hero's tale mixed with the coming-of-age story made my childhood imagination wander. Now I look back at the not-so-subtle way Alexander poked fun at his own characters, and their own dilemmas. Any age of person can pick these novels up and get a taste of Fantasy, yet they are shelved in the Children's Section of your local bookstore. Pick them up for yourselves, and for your children. Who knows, maybe one day your 2nd Grader will point up to them and ask you if they can read them.
Mortal Engines: (Steampunk)
Philip Reeve's novel, MORTAL ENGINES, is the most basic Steampunk novel I know of. Cities, in this alternate version of our own world, are all mobile. They act as predators, with larger cities being driven (literally) by the populace to chase down and consume other, smaller cities. The recommended age for these novels is grade 7 to 10, but I think they serve as a fantastic introduction into the sub-genre for any age. Part of what makes this novel (and its sequels) so entertaining, is that for a YA novel it isn't afraid to be darker in tone. There are themes of tragedy, betrayal, and revenge, all the while mixing in a little romance into a unique and enjoyable setting. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of MORTAL ENGINES.
Something From the Nightside: (Urban Fantasy)
This Urban Fantasy novel by Simon R. Green is really on the line of Fantasy 102 and Fantasy 202. SOMETHING FROM THE NIGHTSIDE is about a private detective named John Taylor who uses his unique...gift...to find things in the Nightside. The Nightside is a sick magical city hidden within the city of London. There it is always 3:00am--the part of the night where it's always darkest before the dawn, and the dawn never comes. The novels in this series are all short, but the imaginative world created inside those pages is incredible, and enjoyable. This book has some language, violence, and some blatant innuendo. It's the most mature of any of the 100-series books I am recommending (hence why I almost put it in 202). However, I think Green's Nightside Series is a great place to get your feet wet in the Urban Fantasy sub-genre. Enjoy it!
Storm Front: (Urban Fantasy)
If you read our review of Butcher's latest (and if you haven't you have some explaining to do) then you know I have become somewhat disillusioned with the series. However, that doesn't detract from the quality of his earlier work. Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files is the very pinnacle of Urban Fantasy. I mean there is a wizard battling all manner of supernatural threats in a city setting. Nearly all of the Dresden Files are page turners which, for me, is the number one requisite for a recommendation here, aside from the genre that is. For an introduction to a style of writing or storytelling, the book has to grab your attention and never let go. Jim does that incredibly well. There are a good couple dozen books that I considered adding here, however none of them define this sub-genre quite like Butcher does. Plus, from the launchpad of The Dresden Files there are dozens of roads to be taken to other sub-genres such as the apocalyptic tales like E.E. Knight's Vampire Earth or Faith Hunter's Rogue Mage Novels to Laura K. Hamilton's Vampire Hunter series.
The Somnambulist: (Victorian)
Jonathan Barnes serves up one well-plotted, awesome story here. Like my other selections so far it is the paragon of it's sub-genre, the Victorian thriller-fantasy. It is a bit creepy, a bit comic, a bit exotic, and all excellent. Once again my standards for recommendation in the University of Fantasy require ease of entry and reading. Despite being a harder recommendation on that basis that my previous two, it still meets them and is a great entry point to the more mysterious, fantastic thriller style. This kind of macabre adventure is going to be remembered based on it's first line alone, at least, and it is: "Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it." If that doesn't make you want to read it, I have no hope for you.
Whitechapel Gods: (Steampunk)
S.M. Peters is an outstanding author, as evidenced by this book. It is a very foreign and very unique take on the steampunk genre. I include it here because it is so bizarre in many ways that it serves as a great example of what is possible in steampunk, while not so esoteric as China Miéville's exotic slipstream. The plotting is very well done and the steam technology presented is extremely interesting, not to mention the machines that aren't powered. All in all, right now, this is one of my favorite steampunk novels as well as the first candidate I considered for this recommendation. New readers to the sub-genre, may not be caught by the steampunk fishhook, but they will at least be impressed with Peter's writing. Read this, and learn what steampunk has to offer you.
Nick Dianatkhah, PhD in Being Attractive.
Steve Diamond, PhD in Being Awesome.
By appointment only.
What you can expect from this course is a selection of recommendations from your instructors to give you a doorway into the fantasy genre.
In a departure from our normal structure,to answer the request of a number of our readers for some more entry level recommendations, we decided to give a crash-course in the Fantasy genre. After all there is definitely not a shortage of entries, both good and bad, to be read. For someone just looking to broaden their horizons and breach the unknown of the Fantasy genre it can be daunting to say the least. We are here to offer one or two, of many, paths into the fantasy genre and your future enjoyment of some of the best fiction available. Your instructors will each choose three books that they recommend for beginner-level fantasy readers. These books will be door openers, if you choose to continue, to the more advanced books and authors that we have been reviewing up til now.
The Sword of Shannara
You know what this book is? It is Lord of the Rings, the simpler version. I'm not kidding. This book is your classic example of the "epic quest to thwart the evil lord" storyline. The best thing about this novel (and all of the novels in this list) is the accessibility of it. Anyone can read it. THE SWORD OF SHANNARA is a gateway-novel suitable for anyone 12 and up (or even younger if your kid is a really advanced reader...like I was). There is no questionable content here, and hints of the themes that make our advanced readings so enjoyable. Also, if you really dig this novel, you have 19 sequels you can read (the first, immediate sequel is my favorite book that Brooks has written).
Pawn of Prophecy
I wasn't sure if I should choose this novel, or REDEMPTION OF ALTHALUS. However, PAWN OF PROPHECY is the beginning of a series, and that is the theme I am going for. Series, in my opinion, tend to give readers a feeling of excitement, and David Eddings does just that with his novels. Nick and I have discussed how Eddings manages to take one characteristic and make it the defining characteristic of a given person. Often times you know who is speaking without even looking at the dialogue tags. This is one of the essential building-blocks of great fantasy. I just recommended this series to my 15 year-old cousin, and he loved them. No questionable content. Great for all readers 12 and up. Oh yeah, and Eddings wrote over 20 novels...they should keep you busy.
I am cheating, in a sense, here. Raymond E. Feist wrote a novel titled MAGICIAN, a classic coming-of-age story about a boy who goes from a "nothing" to the greatest magician in history (well, the history of this created world anyway). The book was later split into two novels, MAGICIAN: APPRENTICE and MAGICIAN: MASTER. Honestly, you should pick them both up to start out with. Feist has been writing for a VERY long time, and puts out a novel a year. This series is broken up into pieces, and will keep you entertained for ages. I think this series is at 30+ novels now.
The Redemption of Althalus
David Eddings is a great way to enter the fantasy genre. He has strong, albeit simple, characters that are entertaining to read about. I vacillated back and forth on this choice, but ultimately included it, a fantasy stand-alone, because it really took his experience with two sextets and two trilogies and boiled it all down to a single volume. THE REDEMPTION OF ALTHALUS is entertaining, light, easy to read, and gives plenty of introduction to a lot of the characteristics of fantasy. It's not the most amazing book you will ever pick up, but in a genre bloated with multi-volume series it is refreshing to have a story contained in a single volume, that stretches multiple nations, plot lines, and dozens of characters (which is the draw of the larger series).
I'm not the biggest Tolkien fan, I admit that right from the start. In fact, I wouldn't even consider myself a fan of his writing. I am a fan, however, of what he did for the genre. So I am including THE HOBBIT here as my number two pick for a couple reasons. It a stand-alone, which in my opinion is important for newcomers to the genre. It is easy to read, lacking most of what makes The Lord of the Rings so ridiculously unbearable, but including what makes it fun. Grandpa Tolkien set an example that fantasy authors, years later, evolved from and imitated. Even though he isn't my favorite, by any means, he deserves to be included in a beginner's fantasy reading list.
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman have established themselves as a staple of fantasy, for better or worse. There has been a lot of criticism levied towards them about their writing, but the fact remains they are hugely successful and know what fantasy is, at it's core. The series this book begins (THE DEATHGATE CYCLE) shows the depth of world-building, and the exotic, foreign qualities that can only be shown by the fantasy genre. My only qualm about including this book is that it is the beginning of a seven book series, not quite as easily accessed for newcomers. Despite that, DRAGON WING obviously made it here because it is that outstanding of a depiction of what to expect.