With the advent of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, The Martian film, and the Magicians series, we are told that fantasy (and its always more respectable cousin, sci-fi) have gone mainstream – not just for kids or nerds anymore. However, it seems to me – a long term, die-hard genre fiction fan currently feeling somewhat vindicated by this resurgence – that the attention remains decidedly limited; most people, asked to name a fantasy series for adults, would still go to The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire and then struggle to name others.
I’ve been reading fantasy for about ten or eleven years now, and I sometimes wish the wealth of attention would get spread around a little. Consider this post a bit of a blast from the past: Fantasy I Have Loved that might be worth checking out. Some of them I might not endorse with the same enthusiasm I did as an impressionable thirteen year old, but for better or worse these were the books that were a part of my literary education – and my induction into the world of genre fiction.
1. Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy and Tawny Man Trilogy. This series gets maligned sometimes for the emotional vicissitudes of its clearly flawed main character, FitzChivalry Farseer. For me, that is one of the highlights. Brought to court after his father dies in a suspicious accident, the bastard Fitz is trained as a spy and assassin. He quickly finds himself entangled in something much larger and deeper than simple court intrigue, however. Both of these trilogies – linked, loosely, by the Liveship Traders trilogy – showcase Robin Hobb’s deft hand with both character and plot – and certainly her ability to wrench your emotions.
2. David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon. David Eddings’ two series comprise ten books in all – twelve, when you add the parallel novels Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress. Eddings’ fantasy is enjoyable because it doesn’t take itself too seriously – frequently funny, even silly, he guides his characters on epic quests without ever falling into sententiousness. His characters can sometimes seem like tropes, but they are delightful nonetheless – particularly in the Malloreon, which has a more complex morality.
3. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. This series gets a lot of flack – for how long it is, and the varying quality of later books (some of which drag, I will admit). However, it was my first love, the first fantasy series since Lord of the Rings to truly suck me in and absorb me, to make me care about its characters. My earliest forays into fanfiction were attempts to write more of a backstory for Min Farshaw, a character who becomes important late in the series. Featuring a vast cast of characters and a 13 book series, Wheel of Time may not be for the faint of heart, but it is very close to my heart. (Incidentally, 2017 is the tenth anniversary of Jordan’s death, and I am planning on doing a reread. Any thoughts I have while I do so will likely find their home on this blog.)
4. Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths. A series with a mentally ill queer protagonist? I actually did not know that when I picked up the first book in this series, Melusine, on a whim because I liked the cover – only to stay up until three in the morning finishing it. The dysfunctional, co-dependent bond between Felix Harrowgate and his (formerly unknown) twin Mildmay is the heart of this series, which also features a number of sinister magical conspiracies. Doctrine of Labyrinths puts its main characters through the wringer, and yet somehow never feels excessively dark.
5. Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels Trilogy. A series set in a world where Queens rule and men serve – though it is not so simple, the relationships between the sexes and between individuals a complex web of obligations and protocols. Dark and beautiful, Anne Bishop’s series can best be described as “sensuous”, and several of its characters have stuck with me even though I haven’t reread the series itself in years.
6. Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy. What a cross between A Song of Ice and Fire and Fifty Shades of Gray might look like, if the former involved less rape and the latter was actually good and not full of bad BDSM etiquette. So actually not that much like either at all. The series is written in the form of memoirs of Phedre, a courtesan and spy, looking back on her life and her adventures in the service of her home, the France-Expy Terre d’Ange. As full of political intrigue and sexy interludes as anyone could want – though you might feel a little embarrassed carrying around the books with these covers.
A postscript: the funny thing I notice about this list, in retrospect, is that it’s dominated by female authors (four out of six). When I think about other fantasy series I loved – Carol Berg’s Rai-Kirah series, for instance, or Tanya Huff’s urban fantasy, or C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy – I am a little proud of my teenage self. There’s been a lot made of the recent surge of female authors in sci-fi/fantasy, and it’s true that there are a lot of very exciting women writing in genre today – N.K. Jemisin, Catherynne M. Valente, and Jo Walton, to name a few. However, looking back at my own reading habits, as a teen who was not paying a whole lot of attention to the gender of the authors she was reading, makes me think that it might not be so new as all that.
Women in fantasy have always been there. Maybe one consequence of fantasy going “mainstream” is just that now people are starting to notice.