Twenty Epics

For anyone who didn’t click through, yesterday’s post about essential sf books of the last twenty years provoked quite a lot of discussion, plus the suggestion that we repeat the experiment with fantasy books. For me at least, this is a somewhat more daunting prospect, not just because I’ve read less fantasy than sf, but because fantasy seems more a much more diffuse category. Terry points to this discussion about “essential reads in literary fantasy”, which may provoke some thoughts, although it’s not limited to the last two decades. Possibly also useful for reference are the winners of the World Fantasy Awards for best novel, best anthology and best collection.

Graham Sleight’s already offered his first-draft list:

  • Aegypt sequence (1987-2006), John Crowley [I know it falls slightly outside the period, but just considering the three in-period novels would be silly.]
  • Rats and Gargoyles (1990), Mary Gentle
  • Moonwise (1991), Greer Gilman
  • The Ends of the Earth (1991), Lucius Shepard
  • Was (1992), Geoff Ryman
  • The Course of the Heart (1992), M John Harrison
  • Wise Children (1992), Angela Carter
  • Glimpses (1993), Lewis Shiner
  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), Michael Swanwick
  • His Dark Materials sequence (1995-2000), Philip Pullman
  • Waking the Moon (1995), Elizabeth Hand
  • The Physiognomy (1997), Jeffrey Ford
  • Declare (2000), Tim Powers
  • Perdido Street Station (2000), China Mieville
  • The Other Wind (2001), Ursula Le Guin
  • Stranger Things Happen (2001), Kelly Link
  • Coraline (2002), Neil Gaiman
  • The Salt Roads (2003), Nalo Hopkinson
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke
  • Map of Dreams (2006), M Rickert

Lal also mentioned some fantasy novels:

  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick (1993)
  • A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (1997)
  • Perdido Street Station, China Mieville (2000)
  • Declare, Tim Powers (2000)
  • Galveston, Sean Stewart (2000)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susannah Clarke (2004)
  • Worldstorm, James Lovegrove (2005)

Taking these into account, and engaging in some further consultation, here’s my suggestion:

  • Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
  • Tehanu, Ursula Le Guin (1990)
  • The Course of the Heart, M John Harrison (1992)
  • The Iron Dragon’s Daughter, Michael Swanwick (1993)
  • Was, Geoff Ryman (1992)
  • Assassin’s Apprentice, Robin Hobb (1995)
  • His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
  • A Game Of Thrones, George R. R. Martin (1997)
  • The Physiognomy, Jeffrey Ford (1997)
  • Last Summer at Mars Hill, Elizabeth Hand (1998)
  • Perdido Street Station, China Mieville (2000)
  • Ash, Mary Gentle (2000)
  • Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link (2001)
  • City of Saints and Madmen, Jeff VanderMeer (2001)
  • Coraline, Neil Gaiman (2002)
  • The Light Ages, Ian R MacLeod (2003)
  • Trujillo, Lucius Shepard (2004)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke (2004)
  • Map of Dreams, M. Rickert (2006)
  • Discworld, Terry Pratchett (ongoing)

Now: over to you.

43 thoughts on “Twenty Epics

  1. Yes, on more sober reflection I would probably also have included a Kay (though I’m not well enough read in him to be sure which – maybe Tigana), a fantasyland fantasy (as Clute would say), probably the Martin, and the Discworld books (just because). Agree Ash is awesome but it went on my sf list; and The Ends of the Earth beats out Trujillo for containing the title story, “The Scalehunter’s Beautiful Daughter”, “Aymara”, “Life of Buddha”, and “Surrender”.

  2. Once again, I’m not well-read enough to make up my own list, but I’d replace Coraline with Sandman, or, if you’re going to be difficult about graphic novels, with American Gods (just about the closest thing to Sandman Gaiman has done in prose form) or Neverwhere (probably the most influential prose novel Gaiman has written).

    I also think one of the slipstream anthologies – Conjunctions 39, Paraspheres, etc. – of the last decade ought to be represented.

  3. Graham: the main problem with my list as it stands, I think, is that it skews too heavily towards urban fantasy. (That is, fantasy set in cities, rather than the crazy contemporary American market definition of urban fantasy.) And you have to choose between early and late Shepard for a list like this, and I went with late — “Only Partly Here”, “Eternity and Afterward”, “Jailwise”, etc etc.

    Abigail: I wanted to stick to prose, largely because including comics opens a whole can of worms. I’ve never managed to get very far in American Gods, which is why I went to Coraline. Good call on anthologies; Conjunctions 39 would probably be my pick.

  4. Just to mention some more fantasy novels that I’d at least strongly consider for my top 20 (or actually authors – each has written at least one other novel that I’d consider an almost equally strong contender):

    Illusion, Paula Volsky (1991)
    Spindle’s End, Robin McKinley (2000)
    When the King comes home, Caroline Stevermer (2000)
    The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold (2001)

    Though, to be fair, every author listed above who I have read would also be at least a strong contender for my top 20 – and the ones I haven’t read are all (already) on my “should read sometime” list.

  5. Peter: Robin McKinley falls into my “vague feeling they should be considered for the list but don’t know where to start” category. See also: Patricia McKillip, Graham Joyce.

  6. There are some novels outside the fantasy mainstream, which I think might be described as ‘essential’, such as The Satanic Verses, Foucoult’s Pendulum, House of Leaves, The Famished Road. Vineland perhaps.

    Also I’d put Harry Potter in there, because that’s like the elephant in the room in modern fantasy. I’d probably pick Prisoner of Azkhaban.

  7. Dr. Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susannah Clarke (2004)
    A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin (1990)
    Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay (1990)
    Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link (2001)
    American Gods, Neil Gaiman (2001)
    Last Call, Tim Powers (1992)
    Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fantasists, ed. Peter Straub (2002)
    Perdido Street Station, China Mieville (2000)
    The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston (2004)
    The Aegypt Sequence, John Crowley (1987-2006)
    His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman (1995-2000)
    The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson (2003-2004)
    Changing Planes, Ursula K. LeGuin (2003)
    The Prince of Nothing, R. Scott Bakker (2003-2006)
    The Empire of Ice Cream, Jeffrey Ford (2006)
    Attack of the Jazz Giants, Gregory Frost (2005)
    Bibliomancy (2003) and Saffron and Brimstone (2006), Elizabeth Hand (close to the same book, with some additions and, I think, subtractions in the latter edition, so I’m simply counting them as one)
    The Fairy Tale anthologies, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (1992-2000)
    20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill (2005)
    Map of Dreams, M. Rickert (2006)

    It was hard for me not to include some horror here, as I often find it difficult to know where to draw the line between fantasy and horror. I’m starting to think that Laird Barron is going to be essential reading pretty soon, if he’s not already, and I think Dan Simmons’s Summer of Night is an overlooked gem. (Song of Kali doesn’t fall within the proper timeframe, or I would have put it in regardless.)

    I know I’m cheating by putting in the entire Fairy Tale series by Windling and Datlow, but tough — they are all wonderful, and as essential as reading Lang’s colored fairy books.

    I find Le Guin’s Changing Planes to be more essential that the renewal of her Earthsea trilogy, mostly because it’s so very new in so many ways.

    Frost and Ford write brilliant short stories.

  8. Interesting list! And one that I prefer to my draft in a number of ways. I think you’re probably right that Ford needs to be represented by his short fiction; I went for The Physiognomy because it was his breakthrough book, and because I was trying to resist weighing too heavily towards the last five years, but I think The Empire of Ice Cream is a brilliant collection. I also went back and forth on Swainston. I’m intrigued to see the Baroque Cycle there, though: in what ways does it read as fantasy to you?

  9. Actually, it was essential sf books, wasn’t it? So it should be fantasy books, not novels, given the collections etc. mentioned above.

    Again, seeing it would be in danger of being missed already apparently, the Datlow et. al. Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.

  10. Well, the fact that I mistyped hasn’t stopped us picking a fair few short story collections … but I’ll correct the post!

  11. I can answer your question about The Baroque Cycle, but not in a very scholarly way, I fear: It feels like fantasy to me. It has an ageless narrator; it creates nonhistorical characters as it narrates history; there are intimations of magic even as it explains science.

    I confess I’m still reading it — still reading Quicksilver, as a matter of fact — but it gives me the same quiver in my spine that a good fantasy trilogy does. It’s got more oomph than plain historical fiction, and doesn’t read like SF.

    What would you call it?

  12. Good, minor detail, might have confused someone perhaps.

    Never really read a lot of fantasy, but how about

    Anno-Dracula – Kim Newman
    Age of Misrule – Mark Chadbourn
    Books of the Cataclysm – Sean Williams
    Various chunks of Steven Brust’s Dragaera
    Thraxas – Martin Scott

    Laird Barron’s Imago Sequence, certainly, if it isn’t too horrifying for you and Robin Hobb’s Farseer series was mentioned above

    Never seen much written about Mary Gentle anywhere – and I did like White Crow – if you get stuck for a topic sometime, maybe you can write about her.

  13. I think there are some nigh-inarguable books I’d list that have been frequently mentioned already: Crowley’s Aegypt cycle; Mieville’s PSS; VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen; Clarke’s JS&MN; Link’s Stranger Things Happen; Martin’s A Game of Thrones; something by Pratchett; something by Gentle; something by Gaiman (Neverwhere would get my vote).

    For some definitions of “essential” we’d then have to mention bestsellers like J.K. Rowling, Laurel Hamilton, Robert Jordan. For some definitions we’d try to find better variants to represent these popular subgenres: maybe De Lint for urban fantasy, Kay for invented lands, Pullman for YA. For some definitions we’d just focus on the really great genre books, like The Course of the Heart. And for some definitions we’d go outside the genre and add the great mainstream titles that have incorporated aspects of the fantastic — Danielewski, Eco, Pavic, Pamuk, Bolano, Zafon, etc.

    Let me ignore all those and suggest a few other titles, though, just because I think they could make for interesting discussion:

    Gene Wolfe’s Wizard Knight, because it is the modern apotheosis (and possibly the last gasp) of truly heroic fantasy informed directly by the old sagas.

    R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing trilogy, for the self-examination it gives the epic fantasies that sprung up in imitation of Tolkien, and the way it meshes contemporary philosophical/cognitive ideas with the epic form. Also because it represents the interesting trend in recent fantasy of incorporating aliens, extraterrestrials — fantasy groping with the idea of being planetary fiction, and perhaps bearing witness to the passing of the idea of ET life from SF to fantasy.

    Catherynne Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, for of its attempt to (re-) build a world out of original fairytales where everyone has a story and a voice; and because of its deliberate use of non-Western styles of storytelling and metaphor.

    Theodora Goss’s In the Forest of Forgetting, because I’d want to represent the surge in twice-told fairytales; because I think the collection as a whole does interesting things with certainty and uncertainty that are very indicative of the modern state of the genre as it relates to the world; and because some stories in the collection also represent what may be the beginnings of a trend I’m seeing elsewhere in genre fantasy that questions the limits of story.

  14. Terry:

    It has an ageless narrator

    Now, that’s an interesting way of thinking about it. I had been reading it as simple anachronism: a writer from now reinterpreting the past.

    As for what I’d call it: historical fiction. But then, I am much less under its spell than most people, and less inclined to fight for it as genre. (See the reading group for more…)

    Blue: I don’t much care for Barron (I largely agree with Victoria Hoyle about his shortcomings), but yes, Gentle is one of those writers I keep meaning to catch up on. I have all the recent Gollancz omnibuses on my shelves: it may be a project for when I’m done with the Baroque Cycle.

    Matt: Good suggestions, and good summary of why this is so tricky. I felt guilty about not representing Wolfe, but although there were parts of The Wizard-Knight I liked very much, the whole felt less than the sum of those parts. His short fiction tends to work better for me than his novels, so I suspect I would go for something like Innocents Aboard in preference to a novel. Valente and Bakker are still on my TBR; and much as I like In the Forest of Forgetting, I think between them Rickert and Hand cover that territory fairly well. (Admittedly, probably with more emphasis on retelling myth than retelling fairy-tale.)

  15. Niall — “Narrator” is the wrong word; should have been “protagonist,” i.e., Enoch. And I’ll be getting to the reading group one of these days, in my (heh) spare time.

    MattD — We’re together on “The Prince of Nothing.” Glad someone’s in that boat with me. And I thought of Valente, too, and almost added her to my list.

  16. Niall, for what it’s worth, The Wizard Knight is far from my favorite Wolfe as well — which still means I like it well enough. I thought about suggesting his Latro books, but The Wizard Knight to me feels more “essential” to the genre. I can see a line of fantastic story dealing with nobility and with the ability to seriously literalise the world as a moral hierarchy running from somewhen in the past, through Tolkien, and to The Wizard Knight; and very possibly stopping there.

    Which is to say that yes, it comes down to what you want from your essentials.

  17. I don’t know the Rickert, and I been looking for Galveston since reading Stewart’s Perfect Circle (and prompted by Farah’s comments in Rhetorics of Fantasy). But that list almost matches my hardback shelves.
    But why no Holdstock? And particularly Mythago Wood or Lavondyss? A serious omission in my view.

    (Hey – how does one get italics in this new layout comment box?)

  18. Lavondyss could get on, but Mythago Wood is more than twenty years ago, so …

    Regular i tags should work for italics.

  19. I would have to omit ‘Moonwise’ as, with the best will in the world, it’s unreadable.

  20. What’s the odds Morgan will be in this list by the time he’s completed two more fantasies?

    And the Castle sequence is of course sublime and therefore beyond the realms of criticism.

  21. Niall: I have to agree with Graham, Ash is SF so I’d go with Rats & Grargoyles. Also The Ends Of The Earth is the most essential Shepard (though you wouldn’t go wrong with The Jaguar Hunter, Barnacle Bill The Spacer or Trujillo as a starting point.)

    As far as Urban Fantasy goes, I wanted to suggest Megan Lindholm’s The Wizard Of The Pigeons, but a check reveals that to be 1986 and just too early. It’s still by far the most interesting novel of its kind I’ve seen.

    Nobody has yet mentioned Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age series (perhaps its an age thing *g*) but they would make my list I think.

    I can think of two great ghost stories not considered, Jim Dodge’s Not Fade Away and Neal Barrett jr’s The Hereafter Gang, two slipstream-ish modern classics.

    In no particular order, therefore:
    Elizabeth Bear — The Promethean Age
    Howard Waldrop — Heart Of Whitenesse or Going Home Again
    Lisa Goldstein — Tourists
    Lewis Shiner — Glimpses
    Jim Dodge — Not Fade Away
    Liz Hand — Last Summer At MArs Hill
    M John Harrison — Course Of The Heart
    Neal Barrett jr — The Hereafter Gang
    Tim Powers — The Stress Of Her regard
    Lucius Shepard — the Ends Of the Earth
    Mary Gentle — Rats & Gargoyles
    Storm Constantine — Wraeththu
    Michael Bishop — Aprtheid, Superstrings & Mordecai Thubana
    Kelly Link — Magic For Beginners
    Ted Chiang — Stories Of Your Life
    Sean Stewart — Perfect Circle (uk: Firestarter)
    Geoff Ryman — Was
    Michael Chabon — The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Klay
    Stephen Sherrill — The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break
    Gwyneth Jones — Bold As Love series
    Robin Hobb — Fool series

  22. Niall: I have to agree with Graham, Ash is SF

    Yeah, but I’d say that about Stories of Your Life and Others … and Bold as Love even won an sf award. ;-)

    Interesting list, though. What made you go for Magic for Beginners over Stranger Things Happen? I think Magic is the better book, but concede, reluctantly, that Strangers is more important, in the context of a list like this.

  23. Niall: I have to confess I haven’t read Stranger Things Happen as I’ve never seen an affordable copy.

    Half of Stories Of Your Life is SF, but at least a couple of the more significant stories are fantasy ‘Tower Of Babylon’ and ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’. Plus even more than Kelly Link he’s been the short fiction revelation of the period. (I’d like to see a list of essential shorter SF/F too.)

  24. Hi Niall

    It seems to me a deplorable piece of laziness, when assembling a list of the twenty most important fantasy books of the past 20 years, to include series’ of novels as single works. If you can’t pick a single book – say Small Gods by Terry Pratchett – then you shouldn’t list it at all. While a series may have a single narrative, something like the Aegypt Cycle is in no sense a ‘book’. It’s a series. I’d also strongly argue against best of the year type volumes. There were a lot of major fantasy novels, collections, and anthologies which deserve mention, and which might make such a list, but they are all single books. As to my own list, I’ll have to work on it. I puzzle, for example, over books of great commercial impact. For all that I have no taste for the works of Robert Jordan, the importance of Brooks, Donaldson, Jordan, Goodkind etc are steadily underrated in these lists.


  25. Jonathan, on series I in-principle agree with you, as I said in the sf discussion; the Pratchett selection is laziness on my part, in that I don’t get on with Pratchett but felt he should be represented. (And nobody seems to be able to agree on which one is essential.) That said, I am more charitable towards series in an essential fantasy list than I am in an essential sf list, simply because they make up so much of the modern genre.

    The cynic in me wants to suggest The Tough Guide to Fantasyland in place of Jordan et al, but you’re probably right that they should be directly represented in some way.

  26. Jonathan, I’m a bit pushed today – a column to write for some magazine called Locus – but I would defend the inclusion of the Aegypt cycle as a) consistent with the sf panel (where we agreed that series were permissible, but that grabbing the whole of the Culture sequence was a bit OTT), and b) better reflecting the nature of the work in hand. Put it like this: if printing technology allowed, Aegypt would/should be a single book.

  27. Niall: I actually think something like Small Gods makes a good Discworld pick. At one time, Pratchett himself would have picked it as his best work.

    Graham: I think the SF panel made a mistake allowing series to be included. It makes it easy to synopsise things, but it doesn’t get to the cusp of the most essential books of the period. For example, if you need all three volumes of the Baroque Cycle, then maybe no single work is “essential”. It doesn’t mean the series isn’t essential – just that it belongs on a different list. I’d say the same is true of the Aegypt cycle. It’s a towering achievement, but I’m not sure any single volume would make an essential books list. It’s a pity that Little Big falls outside the period. I think, for a single volume, it’s Crowley’s most influential work.

  28. The point of Pratchett is that by and large, once he got his stride, one book is as good as another. While Small Gods is usually said to be his best, I believe that this is largely a fossilised opinion formed at a time when the series was a great deal shorter and less established. Manny of his later works are as good, if not better than Small Gods.

    What surprises me is that nobody seems to have mentioned Hal Duncan’s Vellum/Ink duology yet.

  29. I was surprised that there was no mention of the Dragonlance Chronicles or Legends, and even more surprised when I discovered that they fall a few years out of the permissable period. I presume that’s the only reason they were left off, then. Right? :)

  30. I was surprised that there was no mention…

    Anyone want to volunteer for “20 essential TSR tie-ins of the last 20 years”? (And no, just citing the complete R.A. Salvatore oeuvre does not count.)

  31. I can do you “of the last 25 years”. Sort of. Actually, what I can do is 1984-1995.

    The Chronicles trilogy, Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman (1984-1985)
    The Legends trilogy, Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman (1986)
    The Legend of Huma, Richard A Knaak (1988)
    The Icewind Dale trilogy, RA Salvatore (1988-1990)
    Darkness and Light, Paul B Thompson and Tonya R Carter (1989)
    The Avatar series, Scott Ciencin, Troy Denning and James Lowder (1989-1993)
    The Dark Elf trilogy, RA Salvatore (1990-1991)
    The Elven Nations trilogy, Paul B Thompson, Tonya Cook and Douglas Niles (1991)
    Knight of the Black Rose, James Lowder (1991)
    The Dwarven Nations trilogy, Dan Parkinson (1993-1994)
    Elminster: the making of a mage, Ed Greenwood (1994)
    The Second Generation, Margaret Weis and Tracey Hickman (1995)

    On the one hand, that’s only twelve entries. On the other hand, it’s 27 books. And I have actually read them all.

  32. Um, no mention of Beagle’s Innkeeper’s Song? And not a single Jonathan Carroll novel?

    Good to see Was, though. That’s definitely an overlooked item.

  33. OK, draft 2:

    Ellen Kushner (1987), Swordspoint
    The Crystal Shard (1988), RA Salvatore
    Tigana (1990), Guy Gavriel Kay
    Tehanu (1990), Ursula K Le Guin
    Small Gods (1992), Terry Pratchett
    The Course of the Heart (1992), M John Harrison
    The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1993), Michael Swanwick
    The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1995), Diana Wynne Jones
    His Dark Materials (1995-2000), Philip Pullman
    Neverwhere (1996), Neil Gaiman
    A Game of Thrones (1997), George RR Martin
    Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997), JK Rowling
    Ash (2000), Mary Gentle
    Perdido Street Station (2000), China Mieville
    Stranger Things Happen (2001), Kelly Link
    Conjunctions 39 (2002), ed. Peter Straub
    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004), Susanna Clarke
    Trujillo (2004), Lucius Shepard
    The Empire of Ice Cream (2006), Jeffrey Ford
    Map of Dreams, M. Rickert (2006)

  34. Looking at the revised list, I would suggest perhaps making room for a book from the ‘shagging supernatural creatures’ subgenre – or ‘paranormal romance’, as some would have it. Say, the Meyer books, or some Hamilton. If we’re using the same ’emblematic’ qualifier as the with SF lists, one rather has to include one, I feel.

  35. I’m surprised that no one has mentioned Jack Vance’s Lyonesse series. In particular I think The Green Pearl deserves recognition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s