My favorite genre has always been fantasy, beginning when I was just a wee thing, and my dad read fairytales to me at bedtime. It wasn’t long before I found The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and from there it was off to the races. Thanks to my little town’s well-stocked public library and a wonderfully geeky librarian who always seemed to suggest just the right series at just the right time, I was free to let my imagination take off. And I learned much more about the world than I would have had I stuck with the books my classmates were reading.
So in no particular order, here are some of the fantasy novels that have helped shape my life.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King)– I’ve written about my love of Tolkien’s works here before, and I will do so again, but his influence on what I read and thought of as ‘good’ simply cannot be understated, even now, nearly twenty-five years since I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. For the first time, I found a world that was magical and yet felt entirely real, that had characters that even I, a small eleven year-old girl could relate to. I was introduced to battle as a vainglorious venture, and to the idea that the best warriors go to battle not because they love weapons or violence but to defend their homes and families. I discovered a love for beauty and trees and poetry that I have seen in very few works since, and despite having read The Lord of the Rings almost twenty-five times, the story still does not get old. In fact, it gets better. In my last few readings, I have read familiar passages with tears streaming down my face or chills running down my spine, something that never happened in my teens or twenties.
And while it wasn’t the best part of my life with Tolkien, when a friend turned to me after our first viewing of the movie version of The Return of the King and asked, “Did Eowyn really say ‘I am no man’ to the Nazgul?” I got to smile and say, “Yeah, she totally did. Eowyn was a badass from the beginning.”
“I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend.”
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
The Mage Storms Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey (Storm Warning, Storm Rising, Storm Breaking)- I grew up in a little town on the prairie. in a red state. Long before Obergefell v. Hodges, before Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or The L Word. Will and Grace was groundbreaking territory in its portrayal of gays when I was in junior high and high school, and the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, Rejoined, was extremely controversial thanks to its portrayal of a lesbian couple and a kiss the two women share.
Needless to say, in my very conservative little community, when the GLBT community was spoken of at all, it was with hostility.
Enter a badass librarian who always knew what book an open-minded kid needed. This librarian introduced me to Mercedes Lackey’s world of Valdemar and the magical Heralds who protected it along with their magical, sentient horses called Companions. Being a horse-crazy teenager, I was instantly hooked. What wasn’t to like? Misfit young people who were plucked out of their humdrum lives to become the guardians of their kingdom, and instantly had best friends for life who just happened to be sentient horses? Sold.
It didn’t hurt that Lackey’s Valdemar books celebrated people’s differences, whether they were magical or not, had a different religion, were rich or poor, or whatever. The Good People always rose to the top, and the Bad People who were petty, close-minded, and cruel always had their comeuppance. And did I mention that Lackey’s novels gave me my first, in-depth depictions of gays and lesbians as real people who could be good and kind and heroic? Yeah. Mercedes Lackey’s positive depictions of gays was one of the reasons that, when a friend came out to me in high school, I pondered it for a minute, realized that he was still my wonderful friend, and went on with our friendship.
The Mage Storms trilogy was my favorite of the various Valdemar collections, and I read it repeatedly in college, in part because I had a crazy class schedule and nearly full time job during my last couple of years of school. I needed something easy and familiar to read, with positive depictions of people from differing races, sexual orientations, and religions, because in the months and years after 9/11, there was a lot of fear and mistrust of The Other. Mercedes Lackey helped me get through it all.
“Give your enemy a face. If he is human, do not dehumanize him. Know him and know why he is your enemy. If your enemy is within you, understand what it is and why you are afraid. Put a face on your fear. When you understand it, and it is no longer shapeless and vague, you will find your fear is no longer so formidable.”
-Mercedes Lackey, Brightly Burning
A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons)– I should have suspected something was up when my friend handed me the first volume of this series, A Game of Thrones, with that big grin on his face. I started reading and was immediately drawn into the world of Westeros, and when the first head fell I was shocked. And then the body count started climbing, and I knew I was reading something unlike anything I’d ever read before. Here was an author who wasn’t afraid to kill off his characters if they made dreadful mistakes or wound up in situations they couldn’t possibly escape. Sure, A Song of Ice and Fire is set in a world of dragons and magic, but there was a realism to it that I’d never seen in fantasy before.
For the most part, fantasy pre-dating A Song of Ice and Fire tended toward the high fantasy end of things, with Very Good Good Guys and Very Bad Bad Guys and little sense of moral gray areas. The politics of the fantasy worlds weren’t all that complicated, either. Nowadays, though, to say that the world of fantasy has made a sea change since the early 2000s is an understatement. A big one. Fantasy politics, massive casts of characters, and morally gray characters are almost a dime a dozen these days, and instead of the trilogy being The Way fantasy novels are structured, anymore they’re series with dramatic names that too often can’t measure up to what George R.R. Martin does.
I still remember when A Dance with Dragons was released: it was my last day in Chicago. My flight home wasn’t until that evening, and instead of spending one more sweltering July day wandering through the concrete jungle, I downloaded A Dance with Dragons to my eReader, curled up on the couch with my friend’s dog, and spent that afternoon tracing my way from Westeros to Essos and back again.
“Most men would rather deny a hard truth than face it.”
-George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
The Arthurian Saga by Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment)- Several years ago, I got hooked on a little BBC show called Merlin, which was a re-imagining of Arthurian legend, set in a magical world only vaguely resembling Dark Ages England. In this land of myth in a time of magic- where magic was outlawed, and being caught practicing it was an automatic death sentence- a young and powerful sorcerer named Merlin became a servant of the young Prince Arthur. Merlin was destined to help Arthur establish a golden age, but because magic was illegal, he had to aid Arthur and save the prince’s life without revealing his secret to anyone. It was a fun series, though it had its problems- namely, the showrunners always seemed to be a little tentative about pushing the boundaries of the show (especially into the fourth and fifth seasons), and they too often relied on the same plot devices over and over again. But it was a lot of fun while it lasted, and helped me make some wonderful friends online.
My reawakened love of Arthurian lore pushed me to find different retellings of Arthurian legend. While I wasn’t thrilled with most of the stories I found, I was entranced by Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, which is set in the Britain of the 400s, after Rome has abandoned it to its fate, and the Saxons are threatening the island. The story is told from Merlin’s point of view, beginning when he is six years old and just beginning to understand his strange visions and realizing that not everyone has the same abilities that he has. As he grows into his mystical powers, he finds that his destiny is a great one, but that he is only meant to help clear the path for one who is greater still- Arthur.
Stewart’s prose shimmers throughout the telling, weaving a spell every bit as powerful as one of the legendary magician’s. I have to be careful when I open any one of these books, because I will not be able to put it down until I have finished the book.
“The gods only go with you if you put yourself into their path. And that takes courage.”
-Mary Stewart, The Crystal Cave
The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold– I don’t know what prompted me to buy a fantasy novel by an author I’d only ever heard of in conjunction with a particular science fiction series. Maybe I was bored that day, and looking for some standalone work to cleanse my palate of the multitude of trilogies and series that seemed to be the only things available in the fantasy section of the bookstore. Maybe I had ten dollars burning a hole in my pocket, and so while I wanted to buy something, I had limited choices with my limited funds. Whatever it was, I’m glad I bought The Curse of Chalion.
There don’t seem to be many fantasy novels starring protagonists in their thirties, and when they do, they seem to be princes or kings or great warriors who only need a slight push to spur them into action. But at the opening of the story, Lois McMaster Bujold’s hero, Cazaril, is broken in body and spirit, impoverished, and seeks to return to his boyhood home in search of a quiet, out of the way job where he can be of use and not have much expected of him. He’s had an eventful life until now, and none of it ended well for him.
Events interfere, though, and Cazaril ends up being appointed as the secretary-tutor to a young princess, Iselle, a job Caz finds pleasant enough once he gets used to it. But his quiet life is upended when Iselle and her younger brother (the heir-apparent to the throne) are called to the court of their elder half-brother, a king whose rule is failing along with his health. There, Cazaril finds that old enemies have long memories, and that the rotten core of the House of Chalion has a much darker beginning than he could have imagined.
For a publishing world beset by endless series, The Curse of Chalion was refreshing. It establishes an entire world with its religions, politics, and customs, sends fully developed characters on dramatic adventures, and draws the whole thing to a wonderful conclusion– all in the span of one book. Lesser authors would spend no less than five books, bloating this story beyond all recognition and making it the worse for it. But Bujold proves why she has won All The Awards, and you’ll finish the last page of The Curse of Chalion with a happy sigh, both wishing there were more and satisfied with the fact that it stands alone.
There are more books set in the world of Chalion. Bujold won the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards in 2004 for Paladin of Souls, which follows The Curse of Chalion without being a direct sequel. I liked Paladin of Souls, but my heart remains with The Curse of Chalion.
“The world demands that I make good choices on no information, and then blames my maidenhood for my mistakes, as though my maidenhood were responsible for my ignorance. Ignorance is not stupidity, but it might as well be. And I do not like feeling stupid.”
-Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion