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Poll: Best Fantasy Books

before they are hangedFirst, I believe the guidelines for what a “fantasy” book or movie is are hazy. Every time I tell one of my friends that I don’t consume a lot of fantasy entertainment, he says “You love Kill Bill. That’s a total fantasy.”

He is now locked away in my attic so he can’t bother us during this discussion.

When I think about the best fantasy novels, I immediately return to the Piers Anthony and Terry Brooks books I loved so much in elementary school and then in Junior High and High School. The Xanth series and the Shannara books were about the best thing that had ever happened to me. Today I think they’re fun, but goofy and poorly written.

I read fewer fantasy books each year. I’m talking about dragons and wizards and that sort of fantasy. But I still have my favorites, and once in a while someone will recommend something to me that I have to try, and I’ll absolutely love it, even though it’s got a dragon and a bunch of elves and hauberks in it.

Here have been my favorites that I have read as an adult, or reread as an adult:

  • The First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie
  • The George Martin Fire and Ice books
  • Anything by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

And that is where I’ll leave it for now.

The question I’d like to ask, other than listing your favorite fantastic novels of distressed damsels and thrusting pikes and helms that are always getting cleft in twain is:

Is all fiction just fantasy? What defines the genre for you?

Ready, aim, top fantasy books, go.

Josh

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  • Lxndr February 11, 2011, 12:21 pm

    While technically, any fiction is “fantasy” (in terms of “it comes from the imagination!), the genre (I feel) is more restricted than that. I think fantasy differentiates itself from other genres by being steeped in “magic” or other supernatural whatever. The genre is pretty much dominated by “medieval” fantasy, but there’s other kinds as well (urban, etc).

    Generally, it’s a subsection of Speculative Fiction, sharing the table with Sci Fi. Whereas science fiction tends to speculate on the implications of real science, fantasy deals with the implications of the supernatural.

  • Mo February 11, 2011, 12:43 pm

    I really enjoyed reading the Death Gate cycle.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_Gate_Cycle

  • Peter February 11, 2011, 12:58 pm

    Fantasy is fantastic. As a genre, it has things that don’t follow natural law, like Gandalf casting light spells. It still reflects real life, since there are characters and characters are based on people. LOTR is probably the best.

  • Rhamantus February 11, 2011, 1:16 pm

    I think of all the fiction genres that I enjoy reading, fantasy is among my top three, along with historical fiction and a very limited amount of sci-fi (mostly alternate history and dystopic sci-fi, which might not be strictly “sci-fi”, come to think of it; they do fall under speculative fiction, though).
    My favorite authors, with the exception of Tolkien, tend towards the young adult: Robin McKinley, Phillip Pullman, Sherwood Smith, and many other individual books which are YA. My favorites change often, but my most recent favorites are:
    Sunshine by Robin McKinley. This is yet-another-vampire novel, but I really liked it because of the sheer visceral nature of the emotions portrayed; the fear, especially, was well-written and well-developed.
    The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. Political intrigue, interesting and detailed social description, and living, visible gods. Quite interesting. It’s the first in a trilogy, and I haven’t picked up the second book from my library yet, but it’s next on my list!
    The first two books of the Darkborn trilogy by Alison Sinclair: Darborn and Lightborn. (I just found out the third is going to be released in June, so I am now officially excited!) Again, I like it for the unique social situation that’s imagined, and there’s a bit of political intrigue as well. Very satisfying books!

    There are tons more, but these are the few I could think of at the moment.

    • Rhamantus February 11, 2011, 1:17 pm

      GAH!! Typo! The name of the book is Darkborn, not Darborn. Probably obvious, but it bears correcting, anyway 🙂

  • Sarah February 11, 2011, 1:56 pm

    I have to add another vote to LOTR. I took a class specifically about Tolkien in college, and it was awesome!

    Like Rhamantus, I tend toward YA too when it comes to fantasy novels. My recent favorites all seem to be the epic series types, like The Immortal Secrets of Nicholas Flamel, Rick Riordan’s many series, and of course I love Harry Potter. They’re putting a major dent in my wallet…

    For me, a fantasy has magical elements that aren’t (I’ve been sitting here for more than ten minutes trying to think of how to word this…) really explained. They just are. Of course, there’s usually magical creatures and spells and stuff, but where science fiction has some grounding in reality, I would classify fantasy as being purely imagination-based.

  • Jason February 11, 2011, 2:17 pm

    I’m not going to answer the genre question because that’s just about impossible. I too enjoyed Brooks and Anthony back in the day. Here are three fantasy novels that I think would appeal to a more mature reader accustomed to literary fiction. All of them have obvious fantasy elements without depending upon the worn fantasy tropes of the quest narrative with full of wizards, orcs, dragons, etc.

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
    The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

  • Tim Hinkle February 11, 2011, 3:32 pm

    >Is all fiction just fantasy?

    There is at least one strain of fiction which probably doesn’t count as fantasy: the sort of painstakingly-researched historical fiction in which the only thing the author is making up is the dialogue. Everything else is fantasy, but, by unspoken agreement, the readers of the world have agreed not call most of it by that name. This allows the sort of people who like to think of themselves as serious and grown-up to hold the fantastic belief that the books they read are serious, grown-up, and not-at-all-fantastic ones. It also allows the sort of people who haven’t stopped liking dragons to imagine that they have more imagination than the poor sops who don’t read fantasy. The only people who regularly lump all fiction together as fantastic are the people who only read true-crime books and popular biography, as they think themselves superior in intellect for only consuming non-fiction.

    Anyway, I particularly like:
    The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
    The Once and Future King by T.H. White
    Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie
    Half Magic by Edward Eager
    Stephen King’s Dark Tower series
    and Terry Pratchett.

  • David February 11, 2011, 3:33 pm

    Zelazny.

    The Amber series is probably the best balance of quality and approachability. Lord Of Light, Lord Daemon, and Donnerjack are also pretty outstanding, but a little harder to get into.

    • Jim Janney February 11, 2011, 5:37 pm

      Lord of Light is not really fantasy, of course, but that’s what makes it fun. I once heard Zelazny comment that whenever someone tried to define the difference between fantasy and science fiction, he would try to write a story that would break the definition…

      • David February 11, 2011, 5:38 pm

        Of course.

        Depending on what you mean by “really” and “fantasy”…

        … but I think it counts.

        • David February 11, 2011, 5:39 pm

          … and I recommend it in any case 🙂

  • Michelle February 11, 2011, 4:17 pm

    My favorite fantasy books are definitely the His Dark Materials trilogy & Coraline (I’m actually planning on getting a Coraline themed half sleeve tattoo).

    I’m none too articulate today, so I’m not up for attempting a lengthy definition of fantasy, but I would generally say that it has to include something unreal – that doesn’t work by our laws of nature or physics – to count as fantasy.

  • Ben Owens February 11, 2011, 4:30 pm

    I am not ashamed to say that I love Fantasy books. Though most fantasy out there sucks, the same could be said about any genre. But when fantasy is good, there is nothing better Here are my favorites:

    LOTR
    Wheel of Time
    First Law – Thanks for the recommendation by the way.

  • Jim Janney February 11, 2011, 5:31 pm

    Anything by Dunsany. For quality of writing no one can touch him.

    Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd/Mouser stories. The older I get, the more I appreciate how good these are.

    Peter Beagle, The Last Unicorn. The movie is OK, but the book is much better.

    Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword. Probably out of print now, alas.

    • Jim Janney February 11, 2011, 7:08 pm

      And how could I forget Jack Vance? The Dying Earth influenced at least two generations of writers. If you like trilogies his Lyonesse books are excellent.

  • Amanda February 12, 2011, 4:58 am

    Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series. It’s as good as George Martin, with incredible world-building, history and character development

    I’ll also add that Terry Brooks’s latest offerings (the Armageddon’s Children series were able to kickstart my love of fantasy again after Robert Jordan had crushed it. This is full circle as it was The Sword of Shannara which got me started as a 14 year old reading fantasy back in 1981!

  • Chris B February 12, 2011, 4:42 pm

    I love Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. Some might call them sci-fi instead of strictly fantasy, but I’ll classify them here because of the telepathic elements introduced by the matrix stones. The books themselves can be uneven, but the story arc is fascinating.
    I also really loved Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy based around a contemporary version of the Arthur legend.
    But, far and away my FAVORITE fantasy author writing today has to be Charles de Lint and his contemporary urban fantasy stories. If you haven’t read anything of his, then get thee to the store pronto and pick something up – anything – and dive in.

    • Amanda February 12, 2011, 5:08 pm

      Oh yes, I so agree on Guy Gavriel Kay. Every 5 years, I re-read the Fionavar tapestry and take so much more away from it. People who say that fantasy isn’t serious literary fiction need to read GGK.

      • Bethy February 13, 2011, 1:42 pm

        Oh goodness to even find ONE person who has read the Fionavar Tapestry, but TWO? Love.

        I’m very sad that I need to re (re, re) purchase the third volume. I dislike buying used books online, I much prefer to see it in my hands and get the feel of it before buying. Sadly.. I don’t think I have that option anymore. 🙂

        I have to tuck in a couple more items here – ‘The Deed of Paksennarion’ by Elizabeth Moon, and all other books related to the trilogy. What a beautiful take on the ‘paladin’ concept, and so very well told. The military background and detail is amazing.

        Patrick Rothfuss – ‘The Name of the Wind’. Newest FAVORITE. Impatiently awaiting the second book due out in a month or less, I believe. Amazing storytelling.

  • David Woods February 13, 2011, 8:17 am

    You’ve missed The Malazan book of the Fallen series, which is both epic and unique.
    Well worth a read if you have not, indeed you can reread it multiple times and each time you get an “ahha” moment as other parts of the story fall into place – you are left in awe of Steven Erikson and his amazing eye for detail and ability to weave so many solidly developed characters into the story.

  • Pim February 14, 2011, 3:47 am

    Fantasy just happens to be my favourite genre. I think you can define it by using the other name I have come across many times : Swords and Sourcery. You got to have Swords, and other non-gun weapons and you need magic. Dragon’s are optional but not required as The First Law proves. Maps are also an essential part of a good fantasy book. Joe Abercrombie has put an entertaining post on that subject on his site.

    By the way The Dark Tower series is disqualified from the fantasy genre because of the no guns rule. Also the talking train takes it more in the post apolyptical and therefore science fiction genre. As is the Talisman, cool books they may be, alas not fantasy. I have just started in The Heroes, a stand alone book set in the World of the First Law. My wife will be living with a Zombie for a few days.

  • Michelle February 14, 2011, 9:28 am

    I just wanted to add a fantasy recommendation: The Taltos series by Steven Brust. I have a friend that doesn’t read fantasy, I loaned her the first book, and she got addicted to the whole series. There’s a very cynical type humor in them that I love.

  • Sarah February 15, 2011, 1:26 pm

    My to-buy list just got huge…

    • Josh Hanagarne February 15, 2011, 3:15 pm

      Sarah, just in case you didn’t know, if you buy them through one of my Amazon links I’ll get a small commission on each one. Just sayin’:)

  • Yonina February 15, 2011, 3:10 pm

    Fiction and Fantasy mean different things to me; fiction is just something that never happened but technically could. Fantasy, in my opinion, is about stuff that can’t ever happen because of the supernatural properties it contains. I enjoy fantasy books more than fiction because i already have the real world for the realistic stuff to happen. When i read i want to escape the real world and experience things that i wouldn’t normally be able to in real life.
    My favorite fantasies are:
    Harry Potter (obviously)
    The Pendragon Series by: D.J. McHale
    The Eragon Inheritance Trilogy/Series by: Christopher Paolini
    and The Twilight Saga by: Stephanie Meyers
    (not the best plot in my opinion, but so gripping it’s worth it)

  • Don February 16, 2011, 12:38 pm

    Maybe I’m not as sophisticated a reader as some, but after LOTR, I very much enjoyed Anne McAffrey’s books, especially the Pern series.

    • Josh Hanagarne February 16, 2011, 1:42 pm

      Don, if you’re unsophisticated, my wife is just as bad. She loved the Anne Mcaffrey books, especially Pern. I’ve never actually read any of them.

  • Judd February 16, 2011, 5:44 pm

    After the science fiction post I had to stop by and post to this one too.

    Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains knocked me on my ass.

    Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books were fantastic. I wish I had read the first book when I was thirteen. I feel like it would have left some kind of deep mark on my life (not sure why).

    Scott Lynch’s the Lies of Locke Lamora is a fun George R.R. Martin meets Ocean’s 11 heist-gone-wrong bloody romp.

  • will March 13, 2011, 4:17 pm

    I’ve recently taken a liking to Tim Powers; Declare was excellent, as was the Anubis Gates. I’ve been meaning to get to the Last Call trilogy for a few months now.
    I’ll second The Locke Lamora books and George R.R. Martin’s work, too.