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I read as many fantasy books as I could get my hands on when I was younger. To be more precise: I read everything I could get my hands on, and fantasy happened to be the majority of what I could find. Classic kid stuff such as The Wind in the Willows, obvious favorites like The Hobbit and Narnia, titles like The Riddlemaster of Hed and The Hero and the Crown that were new at the time . . . you name it, I read it.

When I was in public school, the closest I came to science fiction was probably Anne McCaffrey's Pern series. Then I discovered Dune and Childhood's End at age 14 or so, and I didn't look back for many years. Science fiction was clearly the thinking person's genre, and fantasy was more and more overrun by Tolkien clones. I was also probably jaded, by overexposure just as much as anything. Whatever the reason, there was a period of a dozen years or so when I would ignore anything labelled fantasy as much as I could.

Then a funny thing happened in the last year or two: my reading habits were clearly trending towards fantasy again. It took a while for me to realize that such a transformation was underway, and when I did, I was curious to figure out what had happened. A basic explanation: some time had passed, and what was formerly contemptuous by way of familiarity had now become not so bad.

Another reason is that fantasy has been doing new and interesting things. Authors seem to be paying attention to character and theme, and writing books that are intriguing and unique. If you don't like excessive world-building, you can easily avoid it, just like you can avoid mindless stereotypes. Not every book is about kings and aristocrats and wizards—there are some real people in there. And there seems to be less of an escape from the real world and enlightenment (I'm thinking of some pertinent comments by David Brin), and more of an engagement with hard, sharp issues.

Something that surprised me as I was reading fantasy again: the popular books in the genre embodied many of these attributes of quality. In other words, the names and titles that I'll be mentioning will be familiar—this isn't an excursion into oddball or obscure corners of the field. It's impressive that the well-known titles are generally interesting and worth reading.

So here are a few impressions of a willy-nilly fantasy reader, getting back into the genre after many years.


Connecting Threads

Have there been any authors from my younger fantasy phase who I still read now? A few.

The first connecting thread between the two eras, and an unhappy one, is actually Robert Jordan—not a name that has much credit in my ledger any longer. I was a faithful reader of the Wheel of Time series starting back in 1992, but I lost my interest as less and less happened in each book. Rather than trying to get out of the narrative bog, Jordan has been bringing back bad guys who had been previously killed! The stretching-out of The Wheel of Time reminds me of the dilemma faced by long-running TV shows—for example, the X-Files had an ongoing conspiracy arc that seemed to define the show to such an extent that it could never be resolved. I still read Jordan, but more out of a lingering allegiance to an earlier self than a sense of enjoyment.

A much happier continuing thread is Guy Gavriel Kay. It's hard to believe, but the first book of The Fionavar Tapestry was published in 1984. With the publication of Tigana in 1990, he broke through with his own style, and in the next 15 years followed with several similarly "historically-inspired" fantasy works, all excellent. War and racism erasing personal identity, the nature of immortality in art, love and death and magic . . . it's all here. While I didn't care that much for Last Light of the Sun (2004), the Sarantine Mosaic duology (1998-2000) is the best of Kay—profound themes matched with exciting stories. His forthcoming book is a change: Ysabel is a modern fantasy set in the south of France.

Like a lot of other people, I've been reading Stephen King's Dark Tower series for the past 20+ years—it's also hard to believe that the short stories that make up The Gunslinger first started appearing in F&SF in 1978. I would say that the middle books of the 7 book series were spacefillers (3, 5, and 6, to be specific), but the rest were worthwhile since it seems like King tried to stretch past his usual shtick. Personally I loved the wrap-up of the series, although it has left some people puzzled—the ending is perverse and logical all at once.


Yay for YA

In the story of a possible resurgence of fantasy, the 800-pound-gorilla is obviously J.K. Rowling. I'm not here to talk about Harry Potter—the debate over the merits of the world's most popular boy wizard has already been pounded into the ground—except insofar as Pottermania has prompted new works or shone a light on existing YA fantasy. I've generally enjoyed the Harry Potter series, with some reservations, and I can't help but admire Rowling's status as the only billionaire who made that money as an author. Sure, it's annoying to have a legion of Rowling-wannabes, visions of Potter-sized dollar signs shimmering before them like a mirage, but that's another matter entirely.

My top pick in the YA fantasy category has become, surprisingly enough, Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (2003-2005). These books came out in the post-Potter era, but they're more like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (see below) than anything from Rowling. The titular character, Bartimaeus, is a notably sarcastic and proud djinn, and when he is summoned by a young boy named John Mandrake, an uneasy relationship begins. The setting is a dizzying mix of Victorian and modern times, with a class of magicians who have essentially taken over control of the British Empire. Stroud takes the idea of magic as a symbol of social power and plays with it in intriguing ways; we find out later that common people gradually become resistant to magic when magic is used to oppress them. At first, John Mandrake is quite happy to enforce the political order with his magic, and since Mandrake's redemption takes three books, he is an unabashedly annoying main character for the bulk of the story. It's a chilling tale of corruption, with a side plot about the necessity of resistance to authority. Good stuff!

Garth Nix's Sabriel came out in the 1990s and got a glossy North American release after Potter. I liked the first book in the Sabriel trilogy because of its sheer speed—every episode in the book is memorable and craftily constructed, and they follow one another at a pace that is just the right interval short of breakneck. Nix doesn't provide as much subtext as Stroud, but Sabriel shows how crucial "what happens next" is when writing for a younger audience.

Philip Pullman is an author who was doing just fine before Rowling came along, thank you very much. I thought the first book in Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy, The Golden Compass, was a work without peer. Unfortunately, I'm in the minority camp that is convinced he mucked it up severely in the third book. I've been debated about this elsewhere. In the context of David Brin's comments about fantasy, there is much to admire about His Dark Materials, since Pullman praises the Republic of Heaven in the place of the Kingdom of Heaven. I won't explain these terms, since Pullman goes over the concepts in narrative-sapping detail in the third book. I admire Pullman's egalitarianism but not the implementation in story form.

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote the famous Earthsea trilogy back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I never ran across them as a kid, but I've quite enjoyed the original three books (and the subsequent books too) as a grown-up. I should add that she is writing a new fantasy series. Gifts came out a year or two ago, and it's about a rite of passage for a young boy and girl. I'm looking forward to reading the just-released sequel, Voices.


Two Authors Writing About Dragons

This is an odd category. Besides, aren't dragons incredibly passé? But these two authors, Naomi Novik and Jo Walton, make a separate category worthwhile. They take what could be a simplistic formulation—just add dragons!—and give it a fascinating twist.

Naomi Novik writes about the Napoleonic era and adds dragons to a military history approach. It sounds dumb, even creepy in its unoriginality. But Novik knows what to do with a story, and she even knows what to do with a sequel. There's even a careful look at sexism and slavery within a historical context. Her trilogy of Temeraire books have been making waves: they were all released within a year or so, and recently there was news that Peter Jackson has optioned them for a potential follow-up to the Lord of the Rings blockbusters. News of movie options generally bore me to tears, but in this case, I like it! Novik is continuing the series as we speak.

Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw seems like more of a one-off, since her latest book, Farthing, is an alternate history of WWII. I loved Tooth and Claw, as it is by turns a bizarre and cruel description of biologically-mechanistic views in Victorian society, a love letter to the literature of the era, and a disturbing and confounding work in its own right. Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award in 2004, with good reason.

I've avoided other books about dragons—Eragon, to name one—like the plague. I can't see how they could surpass Temeraire or Tooth and Claw.


Big, Epic, and . . . Big

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is clearly the heavy-hitter in this category, and the page count has intimidated even some hardened veterans of much longer books and series. It makes me wonder: Susanna Clarke's book is runaway success, but has anyone ever read it? Is this the next Pilgrim's Progress or A Brief History of Time? All of the awards and the copies sold turned me off the book for a long time, but when I finally dove into it, I was delighted to find out that it is sly and subversive, not qualities I was expecting for such a heavy tome. It's as much an irritatingly ambiguous novel of manners, just like the Jane Austen influence would suggest, as it is a Borgesian constructed history. In this case, the constructed history is about English magic, and the story picks up with the two title characters and their attempts to regain English magic's lost glory. If Brin and others are worried about nostalgia and the idea that there's a golden age in the past rather than the future, this book will be infuriating since lost knowledge is a key theme. Perversely, Strange and Norrell don't regain much lost knowledge, and generally miss the point of what's going on around them. That amused me greatly, since most such books are burdened down with prophecies about how the main character, usually a naïve farmboy or some such stereotype, will find some lost artifact and then defeat the dark lord, blah blah blah. Not so old hat here, when the prophecy stays cryptic to all of the characters.

And it looks like R. Scott Bakker has finished his Prince of Nothing trilogy with an ending just as perverse and unique as King's The Dark Tower or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell as just mentioned. Basically, Bakker concluded his fantasy version of the Crusades with a book, The Thousandfold Thought, which relied entirely on a conceptual wrap-up, using a dark lord as the ultimate red herring. The Prince of Nothing ventures a little too far into abstract philosophical territory, a la Dune, but Bakker's points about manipulating society through religion and entrenched cultural biases strike uncomfortably close to home.

Steven Erikson is a case that I go back and forth on. More than any other fantasy series I've read, the Malazan Book of the Fallen series is thinking big, with 6 of 10 books so far. Erikson throws you into the situation, pulls all kinds of tricks without explanation, and expects you to follow dozens of storylines. My example of the weakness of the series: the first 150 pages or so of the fourth book follow a single character, and I loved it. Once that segment ended, it was back to the same whirlwind of hundreds of characters and a chronological scope that is measured in millennia. On the other hand, Erikson seems fully committed to an uncompromising approach, and I don't see how anyone will be able to outdo him at the game of complexity and excessive backstory.

Even old school fantasy series seem smarter nowadays. I enjoyed the bloodthirsty and unpredictable nature of the first three Song of Ice and Fire books from George R.R. Martin, although I'm somehow missing out on an excited feeling about A Feast for Crows. And I'll make a surprised nod to Greg Keyes, whose latest series is solid stuff. Keyes has done a lot of linguistic work—not in the Tolkienesque sense of different languages for different races, but rather a grounded sense of how languages and dialects change over time (along with a clever explanation for the original derivation of names in the book). And this is all critical to the story! The third book in the series, The Blood Knight, came out a few months ago.


New, Weird, Funny

I know that a lot of people would put China Miéville on the top of the list for a resurgence in fantasy. Perdido Street Station is indeed a work of art, harkening back to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, and throwing in all kinds of nifty new stuff (anyone else detect an RPG influence in the construction of New Crobuzon?). It's a liberating thing to read Miéville, since I always get the sense that's he thought about the matters at hand—I don't need to worry about how successful he's going to be in the uphill battle against various fantasy clichés. He starts out on fresh ground, and it shows.

I've read a number of Neil Gaiman's works, including Sandman, Coraline, and American Gods, and I don't seem to be in his ideal audience. I admire his success, but until now, I didn't find that much to like in his books. I'm happy to report that Gaiman's latest, Anansi Boys, hit a chord with me—it's lighter than previous books, and this slightly comic, slightly off-kilter approach fits Gaiman's "intrusion of the mythical into modern life" storyline perfectly. It's funny and wry, and it's also an audiobook worth listening to.


Once Were Science Fiction Writers

I've noticed that several writers who started in science fiction have recently switched to fantasy. A high profile name is Lois McMaster Bujold, who wrote a very award-winning series of science fiction novels about a character named Miles Vorkosigan. She switched to fantasy in 2001, and won the Nebula and Hugo awards for Paladin of Souls in 2004. Her three Chalion fantasy novels are notable for their grappling with religion and issues of free will.

Two other writers whose science fiction I admired: Sarah Zettel and Catherine Asaro. Catherine Asaro seems like a case of someone who is simply very prolific, as she's still continuing her Skolian Empire series while cranking out some fantasy novels. Zettel's Fool's War was one of the better science fiction books I've read, but I haven't had a chance to take a look at her new fantasy books. She seems to have switched over to fantasy completely.


In Sum

Looking back on the past few years of reading fantasy again, I think it's the Stroud trilogy that sticks with me, interestingly, probably followed by Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. For sheer readability, I would have to nominate Naomi Novik, while Greg Keyes would fill the surprisingly solid old-school fantasy category.

This column is not intended to be an exhaustive list of interesting fantasy novels. I realize it's a big field—if I've missed something, let me know!




James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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