|Popular Fantasy Overview|
his is a fast and scatter shot review of a number of popular fantasy writers, intended mostly as a primer of limited scope on the genre. I will expand this over time, but this grew from a short essay I was doing for my writing influences, until it seemed large enough to merit its own page. (Or at least too large to shoehorn into the intro to my writing page.)
Authors listed in alphabetical order. Click the names, or just scroll down the page. In addition to what you see here, many of these authors have a reviews section page devoted specifically to them and their work.
My Favorite Fantasy
The fantasy I like today is basically horror, set in a magical world.
In a typical fantasy tale you'll find evil demons, monsters, wizards, battles to the death with terrifying beasts, and many other horror elements. Fantasy tends to take place on a grander scale (massive battles are expected from time to time in fantasy, while horror tends to be much more about the individual), with parties of adventurers, but then again, lots of horror stories are about a group of people being besieged by evil? Horror more often gets into the evil characters though.
Fantasy always has dragons, or ogres, or goblins, but very seldom do you see anything from their perspective, unless it's from the evil mage who is controlling the forces of darkness, and then he's human or nearly human, often cultivated in his vile nature. Fantasy is almost always from the human PoV, usually the hero who is there to defeat the bad guys/things.
The evil monsters aren't generally awash in psychological motivations. They kill because that's what their kind does. Horror novels are mostly about evil individuals, maybe with magical powers, or a creature of magic, a demon or ghost or haunted house, but they are clearly malevolent, rather than just evil by nature.
I don't read much current fantasy, and very little horror. It sounds terrible immodest and elitist, but most of it just sucks, including most of what I do read. I can enjoy a story while at the same time realizing it's utter junk, in the objective sense. Fantasy is just good at getting you involved in the characters, involved enough to follow them through half a dozen (or more) 600 page novels, just to see what happens in the end.
Fantasy has a reputation for being good stories but not very talented writers, and I think that's a reputation that's pretty accurate and deserved. I'd prefer a great story to great writing about nothing in particular, and so would 99% of the book-buying public, so that reputation isn't necessarily a bad thing.
A lot of fantasy writers are "big bang" writers, a term I've used myself for a while. It means that a story is mediocre, just enough to keep you going, but then there will be one amazingly cool scene before it sinks back into mediocrity for another 100 pages. An awful lot of fantasy writers also seem to be great at making memorable characters, but awful at doing realistic conversation, working in exposition smoothly (as opposed to dropping it in Anne Rice style, ala in huge and obvious chunks), pacing their story (so there are interesting things regularly, and not 50 page stretches of boredom), etc.
Prime examples of the big bang school of writing (which beats no bang at all) are Anne McCaffrey (Dragon Riders of Pern), Ursula K. LeGuin (A Wizard of Earthsea), and Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time).
As a kid I loved Piers Anthony. The Xanth series up to about book 4 or 5 was excellent, (I read up to about #8, by which time he was totally running out of gas; the fact that he's now up past #30 should tell you something about fan loyalty) and the Apprentice Adept series was great for the initial trilogy. In both cases he kept doing more books with those characters that got progressively worse, and I really have no idea how even the early ones I loved in junior high would stand up now. I read them all multiple times before I was 16, but haven't read any of them since.
His fantasy was humorous, teasing, and flirty, rather than dark and brooding and Tolkien-esque. There's no real violence or sex, but lots of tween-titillating innuendo, puns, jokes, and other humorous and frequently clever stuff. Read his work when you're 12, or with a 12 y/o mentality, and you'll probably enjoy most of it. [Top]
Terry Brooks is best known for his long-running and Tolkien-influenced Elfstones of Shannara series. He was a lawyer to turned to writing, and his prose reads like... it was written by a lawyer who turned to writing. His first book, The Sword of Shannara, was essentially novel-length Tolkien fanfic, with virtually every quest element and character nearly identical to something or other from Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings. Even if you can get past the blatant plagiarism inherent in the work, it's an overlong, redundant, poorly-written, boring novel with a video game style castle crawl for a conclusion.
To the great surprise of everyone involved in the writing and publication of the novel, it became a huge hit and enabled Brooks to retire from his legal practice and become a full time author. The second book in the Shannara series was published 4 years later, and it's a huge improvement, even though it's still not any good. At least it's not all ripped off from LotR this time.
I've only read those first two books, I didn't like either one of them, and you can see my detailed reviews with many other comments on Brooks on the Elfstones of Shannara review page. I will try to get through one of his more recent novels at some point, if only to see how he's progressed (or not) as a writer. [Top]
I have a short list of recommended books and authors in my wallet; a list that I check every time I'm in the library. I seldom see anything that matches up, but after I semi-recently got a recommendation from a fan of my D2 stories, I added Steven Brust to my list. And as luck would have it, when I was at the library a few weeks ago they actually had a recent paperback by him. Unfortunately, it was book two in a trilogy, but I figured what the hell, it would at least give me a taste of his writing style and if I liked it I could stop reading and hunt up book one and read that first. As it turned out, I stopped reading very soon, but I shan't be searching out the first volume in the trilogy.
The book I checked out was entitled The Lord of Castle Black, by Steven Brust. The name there is linked to its page on Amazon.com, though I'm certainly not recommending that you go buy it, for reasons I will soon elaborate upon. My main problem with the novel is that it's presented as though it's a tale being told by a historian, and his writing style is so affected and verbose and flowery that I simply got bored with it. You can look inside the book on the Amazon.com page to see the first 10 pages or so, but before I realized that I typed out the following excerpt, from a bit further along than the Amazon preview reveals. This is an essentially random selection, but one that I thought very typical of the overall writing style and presentation.
And the whole book is like this.
None of this is bad or incorrect or anything, and some of it is funny, but every character talks like this, and even the narrative and paragraphs of exposition are worded in this stilted and overlong style. I don't have that much time to read, and when I do I want the story to keep moving. I made it through 30 pages of this novel, but only by skimming, and since I was missing all of the cleverly-worded details that made it enjoyable, I realized that skimming was no way to get through this book. So I gave up.
The real problem is that these stilted conversations convey most of the information, which is why it's not possible to skim along and skip the strange verbosity of it while still following the story. You have to read every word or you won't have any idea what's happening or who is who. I tried to read slowly over the 30 pages I read, but still had no idea who the four characters talking in this scene were. I knew there was an older man named Morrolan and three women with him, but I thought he was a warlock, and the three women had names. Yet looking at it now, I think the 4th woman is being referred to as the warlock, even though that's a male title. Either that or Morrolan is one of the women and the man is the warlock. In any event, the book has gone back to the library, and while I'll try some other fiction by Chris Brust in the future, it will not be something else from this series, since the writing style of it failed to engage me.
I read two novels in her six-novel The Wayfarer Redemption series in early 2003, and though neither were especially good, they are worth a look. She's done a dozen or so novels and is popular in her home Australia, but appears to just be breaking into the US market, with plans to publish the remaining four novels in this series at 6-8 month intervals. Book two was released shortly before I saw it at the library, it seems.
There's nothing special about her writing, it's workmanlike and relatively chaste, though there is enormously graphic violence, but it's pretty inventive. Multiple races, human and otherwise, long-buried secrets of the ages, some good surprises in the stories, a plot that spans thousands of years, cool monsters, lots of death and battles. She doesn't do excitement well though, all of the battles and such seem to be sort of coldly described, and the shocking violence never seems to shock, it's just like, "Oooh, that's gross." but never do I shudder or shake (in appreciation) as I do at really well-written gore.
The characters are relatively stock though, sort of "noble hero #1", "suffering damsel #2", etc, but the events aren't at all predictable. I'm not motivated to seek out any more of her writing, or buy books 3-6 in the series from some store in Oz, but if they were at the library now I'd get the rest of them.
Whether I'll remember or care to do so in three years when the whole series is out in the US remains to be seen. [Top]
I've gotten involved in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series sort of despite myself. He's a bit better than the average fantasy writer, and he's got some good plot ideas and creates interesting characters that keep readers interested in his never-ending story, but he's a very poor novelist in terms of keeping the story moving, paying off exposition and plot developments with big conclusion scenes, and crafting realistic characters.
WoT is an interesting series in that the 10 books (so far, as of July 2004) have only covered about 2 years of real time. They're long books too, 700+ pages, so we're talking 7000-8000 pages of fiction for less time than lots of individual novels cover. As you can imagine, this allows/forces him to cover things in microscopic detail, as well has host a cast of hundreds. The downside is that the reader is regularly expected to remember who minor character X is, what they were doing when last seen 3 books ago, and what it means that they're threatening major character Y, in location Z, now. The other problem is in pacing, and Jordan has really run into problems with that since book 7 or 8. Books 9 and 10 weren't bad in of themselves, but they hardly advanced the overall plot at all, and instead split the ongoing plot threads up even further. Readers, previously loyal and devoted, are beginning to revolt.
As for Jordan's writing, it's not bad. His Wheel of Time series has interesting good guys, and the main bad guys are pretty interesting as well, with frequently divided loyalties. But beneath them are countless hordes of monsters that constantly pop up to create tension and bloodshed and force the plot to advance with battles. It's not that the books are no fun to read, but it's clearly a sign of a mediocre novelist who constantly requires a sort of clawed and fanged deus ex machina to keep things humming along. Jordan also lacks the ability to move a book towards a conclusion by logical steps of progress. He tends to diddle around for 500 pages with sporadically-interesting but unimportant character interactions and silly teen angst stuff, and then tries to salvage the book by sending Rand (his hero/savior character) popping off halfway around the world for a huge battle with one of the superpowerful Forsaken. And it worked, for the first 5 or 6 or 7 novels in the Wheel of Time series.
Unfortunately, he's up to 10 in that series, and the last 2 or 3 books have been the worst of the ongoing saga. There are way too many plot threads, nothing is coming together, things continue to split apart, and the last-chapter epic battles we've come to expect haven't even been there. Those were a gimmick, and usually felt rushed and shoehorned in to make something happen, but they were all that made the books worth reading, since they advanced the plot and made major changes to the framework of the world.
The Wheel of Time has now spun out of control. There are way too many characters, all off doing their own thing, with about 8 parallel story arcs going on, all of them pretty interesting, which is a feat, but at the same time, you read 1500 pages, 3 or 4 years of his writing, and three of the main characters have done nothing but be mentioned by others in passing, or had 20 pages in one chapter devoted to catching up on what they are doing, which is usually nothing at all. I can Jordan writing another half dozen novels, taking us up to 2010, and only moving the story forward about three months, while resolving none of the current splintered timelines.
He has to be panicking at how he's drowning in his own invention. [Top]
The Wizard of Earthsea is what I've read of hers, it's her best-known fantasy, and while enjoyable, they are the epitome of big bang writing. Her bangs are glorious, great stuff with magical battles or horrible suffering, awesome dragons and quests, but everything seems to take 50 pages too long to develop. The first three novels in Earthsea are recommended, but the fourth can be easily skipped, it's relatively miserable.
Her writing is very uninvolving; the stories are told almost entirely from a distant 3rd person, so you virtually never feel involved with any characters, other than feeling sorry for them in their cold, wet, hungry, misery. There is very little dialogue or action, with long stretches of wandering plot and very little of interest. The upside is that if you've read a novel before and want to get to the good stuff, you can skim dozens of pages at a time and read the full novels (which are quite short) in half an hour.
I do love the mood of them, so dark and depressing throughout, and the way magic is handled in the stories is great, with it being very difficult and riddled with checks and balances. I like my mages to struggle and have to work within limitations; that's much more interesting than ones with godly powers, able to rip the world apart or conjure endless supplies of food or teleport to safety whenever they want to. [Top]
Anne McCaffrey's first few DragonRiders of Pern books were excellent, up through book 4 or 5 probably, where it started to lose focus. She's done oh, 15 or so by now, with the writing remaining pretty strong, but the plots growing increasingly tangential and unimportant. I've read all of them, even though by the last few the strings that controlled the moving parts were getting pretty obvious. For example, there's always a gifted and misunderstood kid running off to prove themselves and ending up triumphant and embraced by society as a whole. That sort of thing appeals to the teens the books are aimed at, and adults who retain enough of their childish nature to enjoy fantasy.
McCaffrey is a skilled writer; not a master or anything, but she's very good with characters. You really feel for the people in her better stories; root for the good guys, despise the maddening bad guys, and she keeps it somewhat balanced; the baddies aren't just cardboard props to give the good guys something to fight against; most of the bad guys have their own semi-logical motivations and desires. It's much harder to write a story where the bad guys are humans who have their own agenda, rather than just making them a ravening inhuman murderous horde with no goal or existence other than to fight and die.
McCaffrey is also pretty good at plotting, especially at making sure there are payoff scenes. She builds them up, the men or women or forces in opposition, heightens the tension, has minor scenes along the way, and eventually she gets to the payoff. And it delivers, which makes it really satisfying for the reader. Conflict isn't just fighting either; she's very good with relationships, showing a feisty woman being gradually tamed and coming to love a strong man, a man and a woman slowly coming to realize they are in love, an insecure young person growing confident as they mature, etc.
Though they are far from her best-known novels, the first two books in the DragonSinger trilogy (part of the early Pern series) are some of her best work. Why? They are all about technique, and show how good a story can be even without many of the elements that most fantasy relies upon. Both books are short, and feature virtually no physical conflict. No dragons battling thread, no knife fights, no dragon impressions, and no love stories. Every bit of conflict (aside from some man vs. nature) is interpersonal, with the main character, a teenaged girl named Menolly trying to fit into society and develop her musical talent despite her repressive parents.
What impresses me about the stories is that they are entirely character and event driven, and are suspenseful and filled with tension despite having zero sex, no romance, almost no violence, no profanity, no horror, no monsters, no fights, etc. In short, there are none of the crutches so many authors (including myself) find mandatory, both books have very minor plots with no real events of consequence, and yet they're fascinating. They just show that you don't need to have kings, wars, impossible quests, love stories, etc in a story to keep it interesting.
My point here is that it's (relatively) easier to write a fantasy (or whatever kind of novel) novel and make it interesting by throwing in tons of action, battles, wars, monsters, etc. That doesn't always work; there are certainly plenty of mediocre fantasy novels that have all of those stereotypical elements and still suck; bookstores are full of them, usually in the form of game adaptations. But it's definitely harder to write a compelling fantasy novel that is entirely character driven, and you've got to do a damn good job with the characters to make all of the payoffs no more important than "will this teacher like me" or "will those bitchy jealous girls ruin my clothing" and have the reader as interested in those as they would be in a war to determine the fate of humanity. And McCaffrey does it, at least in DragonSinger/Song. I find that illustrative, for my writing. [Top]
I first became aware of George Martin when I saw his name listed as editor for the anthology series, Wild Cards. I didn't pay him much attention though, since after all, he was just the editor of a series of pulpy, comic book-styled adventure novels I read very quickly in the early 90s. After that point, GRRM was lost to my knowledge for over a decade. He reappeared on October 21, 2002, when in response to me blogging that "there are no 'great' fantasy writers" a reader strongly suggested I check out Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series.
That reader rave, and the others on Amazon.com got me curious about the series, but it wasn't until months later that I found a copy of the first book at the library. I was impressed by it, but not blown away, and I reviewed it on March 22, 2003. It was well-written, well-plotted, and filled with interesting characters. However it was almost historical fiction, rather than fantasy, with no magic or monsters or anything of that nature, other than a very brief bit at the beginning, and at the end. Also, the first novel isn't really a novel. It's just the first 800 pages of a 2000+ page story, with 6 or 8 plot threads running along, none of which are resolved or intertwined in book 1. Oh, it's a very good book, lots of stuff happens and the characters and events are fascinating, but it's not "great."
However, books 2 and 3 in Martin's series are much, much better. The plot thickens, characters grow more interesting, magic and magical creatures appear, and I'm currently (July 2004) eagerly awaiting book 4, which was due in early 2004, was backed up to the fall, and may well slip into 2005, since he's still busily writing it and is over 1000 pages already. Since the whole series is going to go 7 or 8 books, you can safely not get involved in this for a good 5 years yet, and perhaps save yourself a lot of waiting. Though I would ask that you join Malaya and myself in fervently wishing that Martin doesn't get his by a minivan, or choke on a fish bone. And that if he does, he's left extensive notes about how all of the plot threads tie up, and what happens to the land and the main characters. [Top]
I'd never heard of or read anything by Salvatore until early 2003, when I saw his name on a book with an interesting cover illustration, and decided to grab it. Being as I was in the library, that was an okay thing to do. The book was The Thousand Orcs, and you can click that link to the Amazon page if you want to see what the cover looked like. What follows is my reaction to it.
One short book mention. In addition to the Steven King novel that I reviewed/discussed a couple of days ago, I got another book from the library. It's listed on the "Books Lying Open" thing on the bottom of the nav bar on the left. To save you scrolling down, it's called The Thousand Orcs, by R. A. Salvatore. I've never read anything by him before, and from the looks of the first 30 pages of this novel, I probably never will again. It's very bad. Like bad fan fiction. Not poorly-written fan fiction, which there is a ton of around the Internet, but bad fan fic, in terms of writing like a "my first fantasy novel", following a very evident formula.
That's as far as I've gotten, which is about page 28, and I've found myself skimming paragraphs several times already. Very boring prose; workmanlike, completely lacking in inspiration or quirkiness or an original voice. It's also such a derivative world, sort of a Tolkien-light crossed with Warcraft and it doesn't "feel" at all real. It reminds me of the very mediocre Blizzard novels, and I'm not just saying that since I didn't get to write them.
If I make it through any more I might write about it again, but I've closed it and put it back in the living room, since I didn't want it staring at me from beside my bed. I assume there are interesting battle scenes eventually, the way the book is opening up, so maybe I'll skip ahead a bit and check some of those.
Looking at the Amazon.com review page for it, the guy obviously has his fans, for the crappy book has a 4.5 rating, despite being like the 20th in his video game-esque series. Fans do like sequels. The world in his books is the same as in some video game series, but I'm not sure if he invented it, or if he's writing something of an adaptation or fictional version of it, ALA the Diablo/Starcraft/Warcraft Novels. And just to throw doubt on the judgment of slashy fantasy fans, I'm looking at the reviews for the utterly mediocre (if that good) Legacy of Blood, the first of the Diablo novels (the only one I've read all of) and even it has a 4/5 rating. And it was just awful. Really, the whole thing is about a possessed suit of armor with a bunch of pointlessly gory scenes thrown in, and it's got virtually nothing to do with Diablo at any point.
This sort of thing (the Orcs book, the Diablo novel rating, everything) really makes me want to not write Fantasy, since such utterly mediocre crap can be a big seller and appreciated by the non-discerning fans. Bleh.
I gave up on the RA Salvatore book. It's still listed on the left nav bar thingie, but it and the Steven King book were due back in two days and I'm in the middle of A Game of Thrones, and it's improving as I go, so there was no way I was going to go back to Salvatore's crappy Orc book. I wrote about why it sucked a few days ago, and nothing has changed since then.
Anyway, I got through about 30 pages of it, of which I skimmed at least 10 pages, and was bored and it was suxor, so that was plenty. It's a sign of strength if you can start a book, realize it sucks, and put it down to do better things with your time. That goes for movies and TV and hamburgers as well. [Top]
Tolkien must be mentioned, but it's hard to even discuss him at this point, with Lord of the Rings being so archetypal and influential. The fact that many readers can never get through his books, even when they really want to, should tell you something though. His writing is often very ponderous, and he's possessed of a seemingly endless supply of words, and he's a big bang writer of sorts, but his slow pacing and linguistic style are part of what makes him work, much as H.P. Lovecraft's antiquarian vocabulary sets the tone and mood for his work so well.
The novels in LotR taken individually aren't all that good, but they have myth-like characters, and as so many critics have said, the world of Tolkien's seems so amazingly real and alive. It's not like he's creating something, it's more like he's telling you about it from personal experience. His writing is like a massive nine course meal at a gourmet restaurant, prepared by a master chef, compared to the fast food and TV dinners of other fantasy writers. Of course you have to consider how many people have the time/energy to devote to a nine course meal, as compared to how many prefer a quick dinner on the run.
I find long stretches of LotR quite boring; it seems that they are hiking and being hungry at least 25% of the time (though that's even more true in the Hobbit, the prequel) and many other scenes seem to go on 50% longer than they need to, dragged out with endless descriptions of Moria, or singing in taverns, or elf forests, or conversations with Treants, etc. I can imagine LotR being 200 pages shorter without losing any of the actual plot or events, but that would at the same time spoil much of the charm of the novels; it would be like modernizing the language in Lovecraft, running the risk of losing the whole mood that makes the stories work in the first place.
Tolkien also makes you feel the time, the hunger, the cold, with his writing. Most authors throw in something like,
Not Tolkien. None of that "cut to the chase" stuff in Tolkien, they hike for fricking weeks, they are hungry and despairing, and you'll see every sight along the way, and take every step of the journey with them.
Whether this is good or bad is open to interpretation, but it does set Tolkien apart, at least somewhat.
|Return to the Reviews Index.|
All site content copyright "Flux" (Eric Bruce), 2002-2007.