Thursday, August 13, 2009

The light fantastic

A bit of a stir in my corner of the internet about a New Yorker Book Bench list of seven essential fantasy reads. I will definitely say that I have read all but one of these books and they are almost all, in my opinion, pretty terrible and definitely not what I'd recommend to win over the slightly wary non-fantasy reader!

The list is quite self-deprecating, and I don't want to knock its author - it's difficult to make a list of personal recommendations without opening oneself up to the risk of seeming to define a canon which can then be charged with all sorts of omissions. So, in the spirit of the original list, I offer an off-the-top-of-my-head list of female-authored fantasies that have meant a lot to me over the years.

For the most part, I've omitted books that are clearly directed towards young adults (though Susan Cooper is certainly a crucial one for me as a reader, and a recent reread of The Dark is Rising persuaded me that that first volume of the series at least really is comparable with what someone like Ian McEwan tries to do in his novels); the important exception is Robin McKinley, who I really cannot leave off this list!

I've also left out some books I only came to recently and that thus haven't shaped my internal fantasy landscape to the same degree, but writers who would seem to me to belong on a list like mine and surely would crop up on a different reader's version of it include Ellen Kushner, Kathleen Duey, Jo Walton, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull and Naomi Novik. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting - this really is just off the top of my head. (Susannah Clarke! Caitlin Kiernan! OK, gotta stop...)

So, a list of seven female-authored essential fantasy recommendations for the fantasy novice, in no particular order:

1. Patricia McKillip's Riddle-master trilogy. Utterly magical - I had a one-volume edition from a garage sale that I read to pieces...

2. Anne McCaffrey's Pern books, but especially the Harper Hall trilogy.

3. Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover books, especially Thendara House. These are uneven, but at her best Bradley was exceptional.

4. Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword - yes, vaguely and squeamishness-inducingly orientalist at points, but still one of my favorite books of all time and a frequent reread in adulthood also.

5. Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy.

6. Perhaps too hyper-canonical to be even worth mentioning, but Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books were very frequently reread by me in childhood and teenage years. (The affiliation between fantasy and young-adult is more than just a matter of marketing categories - more thoughts on this TK.)

7. And, finally, a novelist who is not usually categorized as a fantasy author but who seems to me to be so firmly entrenched in the lineage of contemporary female-authored fantasy that she has to be recognized here: Georgette Heyer. An early twentieth-century example of rich worldbuilding, down to the invention of a "Regency" idiom that bears recognizable similarities to the language used in the period but is very much Heyer's own creation; the story told in These Old Shades and Devil's Cub is a good place to start.


  1. As to McKillip and McKinley, utterly agreed! I might also add some of Tanith Lee's early work to the list and (in the fantasty of manners vein--Heyer etc.), Dame Dunnett's floridly tinted Renaissance...

  2. Octophile: Oh, yes - much love for Dorothy Dunnett! People who like Heyer often like her as well - I discovered them both the same year, and it made my head explode (and made me write _Swordspoint_)!

    Jenny, thanks for a terrific post. And I'm with you on _These Old Shades_. In general, I like the Georgians best. Do you love Joan Aiken's alt-hist Regencies as well?

  3. I am ashamed to confess that I have never read DD's historical books, only her mysteries, which I love! Hmmm, that should be remedied...

    Yes, I grew up on a heavily Joan Aiken diet - I think her short stories are perhaps even better than the alt Regencies, but I do really really especially love those opening volumes in the sequence - and Dido is still a favorite name of mine!

  4. Why is it that I have read (and re-read) all the female fantasy authors on this list, but none of the male authors on the New Yorker list? I am curious whether there is anything inherently different about the way male and female authors write in this genre ...

  5. Dear JD: Do pick up the Lymond Chronicles sometime (Yes, flawed, but magnificently, absorptively so.) I'd love to hear what you think!

    Dear EK: I have admired Swordspoint and its sequels (companions? cousins?)for quite some time and have often wondered if some of Francis Crawford's genetic material had been spliced into Alec's DNA! How rare and delightful to have the hunch confirmed.

    postscript: I am not precisely certain what I meant by "fantasty of manners" but it sounds like it would be delicious if you could figure out the right forks to use.

  6. I agree that list is a bit too mainstream and hefty in page numbers and sales to be interesting. Your list is much better... not my ideal list, but closer to it ;D

    Ursula Le Guin has to be in any list - Earthsea is awesome.

  7. I agree too. Your list is close to perfect...

  8. I made a list of my own in response, too--not of books I liked myself, but ones that I thought the requestor of the list might find palatable, since he is oozing into fantasy without actually liking the genre. So I tried to think of books that would be accepteable to him...

    I myself like your list lots!

    And Dorothy Dunnett has been on my tbr list ever since I learned that Megan Whalen Turner loves her books...

  9. Dear Octophile: Thank you so much! While I did write Swordspoint after having read the Lymond books, I must say I loved & recognized Le Crawford the moment I met him, as an old friend. I think both he & Alec share a primordial ancestor in my brain.....

    Dear Charlotte: When I met her (at a mutual friend's anniversary party, after the first 2 "Queen's Thief" books were out) I was astonished to learn that Megan Whalen Turner had never read the Dunnett books! I told her to check them out. Her response was . . . enthusiastic. I think you'll enjoy them, too - and I've never even met you (I think)!