Thursday, November 4, 2010

Fantasy Books, Gaming Fiction and My Background in Them

I really just wanted a post on the blog that explains my background with fantasy literature as it might help someone get why I think a book is good or bad. This is that post.

I liked stories about knights and castles and such when I was a kid. In about the third grade our teacher read us the Hobbit in class and I completely fell for it. A short time later I saw a little animated movie called "The Hobbit" and heard that there was a follow up story called "The Lord of the Rings." During a discussion with an aunt who was into fantasy books I mentioned that I had heard of these books but I didn't know how to get them. She loaded me into the car and drove me to Waldenbooks in the mall and bought me all 4 of them. I read those books over the next week and read them many, many, times over the next 20+ years. Those books were my introduction to fantasy and in some ways are a high-water mark for fantasy lit.

In elementary school I also read The Chronicles of Prydain and was thrilled. These were written more for kids but they were very good stories and were still better written than a lot of the material that comes out today. I read them again a few years ago (reading them aloud to my kids before bedtime) and they still hold up very nicely.

I read a lot of World War II and Science Fiction stuff in elementary school too but since this is about my Fantasy background I will focus only on it.

I discovered D&D in 5th grade and beyond the game itself it provided a nice bibliography of fantasy books - remember this was way before the internet and it was sometimes hard to know what to look for at the library or the bookstore. Now I had a list...

In Junior High I read Sword of Shannara (thought it was kind of weak back then), The first Xanth trilogy (OK and kind of funny), a lot of comic books, and then we moved to Texas and the local library had the Conan books.

Feeling like I had found the holy grail of fantasy fiction (beyond LOTR) I dived in and read all 12 Ace edition Conan books over my 8th grade year and it set the new high mark. They are different from LOTR but they are equally powerful in their own way. I've read them many many times since then as well as the new un-pastiched director's cut versions that came out a few years ago and I still rank them at the top.

Next I found the Elric books and I pored through those as well - different than Conan or LOTR but kind of a weird middle ground. Violent like Conan but also baroque and fantastic like LOTR. I loved them and still do. I tracked down Moorcock's other works and devoured them as well and all together they make a very nice block of Fantasy reading with a distinct feel to it.

In some ways that's my Triangle of Fantasy Greatness - LOTR/Hobbit, Conan, and Elric. Maybe that dates me but that's the core of it to me. If you want to include the classical trilogy of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid then you might have a second "center of greatness" that I think has an impact on the earlier works of fantasy at least.

Other classic works that I like include The Worm Ouroboros, The Compleat Enchanter, and Burrough's Martian stories. I am also a fan of Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories though I do not rank them quite as highly as some old-schoolers do. They are very good though and very much tied into the core of what led to D&D. Along that same line Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson is clearly the genesis of the D&D paladin and the D&D troll and has a good dose of fey/faerie too.

The 80's - In the remainder of the 80's I read Fred Saberhagan's Swords trilogy and thought it was decent enough though I think I like the Empire of the East series that precedes it a little better. They're both good reads. Laurence Watt-Evans Lure of the Basilisk series is a good set of tales with a non-human point of view. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook is a good set of stories - I don't see it as the major work that some others do but I do think they're good. The Guardians of the Flame by Joel Rosenberg is one of the early "gamers transported into a fantasy world" stories but after the first trilogy that tends to show up less and less as new characters fully tied to the fantasy world take over. It's a good series and covers 2 or 3 generations now.  There were two other major fantasy series in the 80's that I think bear mentioning:

1) Thieves' World - these books were very popular and were by far the grittiest, nastiest set of thing I had ever read, at least by the middle to end of the series. If you think Conan or even the Black Company stories focus in on the low fantasy end of the spectrum take a look at these. Technically the first one was published in 1978 but they came out about one a year all through the 80's until the final volume was published in 1989. They get nastier as the series goes on and after seeing the same trend in Wild Cards I wonder if it's a trait of shared world novels as the writers try to outdo each other. In any case if you are interested in low-fantasy with a wide variety of characters it should be on your list.

2) Dragonlance - this was the real beginning of the D&D fiction avalanche. At first it was just a trilogy and a bunch of game support material but soon it would open the floodgates and we would see everything from Greyhawk novels to Forgotten Realms novels to books focusing on the gully dwarves of Krynn. This also indirectly opend up 2 other types of fiction - the non-D&D gaming fiction series such as the Battletech novels and later the Shadowrun, Vampire, and Wwarhammer/Warhammer 40K novels. It also opened up the "trilogy based on a guy's D&D campaign" series of books - more on those later. These were the first and they are decent stories. Re-reading them as an adult I see some things I do not like as much now but there is some fairly grown-up material in there. The death of Sturm is one. The unrepentant selfishness of Kitara the former friend is another. The whole character of Raistlin and the strain between family, friends, and the desire for power is pretty well done though it does play a bigger role in the Twins trilogy that came after. Those are all well done and the world is painted well and feels like a D&D world. It's not LOTR, but it's not garbage either and it was a major work at the time and still is now if partially for what it represents. I can tell you that my 11-year old reading it this summer for the first time thought it was as awesome as I did back when I read it for the first time and I think that says something.

There have been some other "big" fantasy books that have come out in the last 20 years:

David Drake has written some fantasy and as much as I love his military science fiction I am not as big on his fantasy. Lord of the Isles and the sequels are interesting but not my favorites.

Robert Jordan wrote a  huge pile of words about something and I have yet to read any of them. I do have the first two on my bookshelf and they have been there for several years now. I just have not been able to bring myself to start down that road as every book in the series is ridiculously long and there are way too many of them - there's no work of fiction that should take 5000 pages. History of Rome from 500 BC to 500 AD at 1 book per century? OK, 10 volumes sounds fine. History of made-up world and characters in 10+ volumes of 600+ pages? Ridiculously overwritten.  I may get to it someday but it won't be soon.

L.E. Modesett wrote a bunch of stuff about a world called Recluce and it's pretty good.  Looking at the list there are 16 of them now covering around 2000 years of history. Alright that's more than I expected but each one is much smaller than a Wheel of Time novel so it evens out. They describe an interesting world and a very interesting magic system, one of the more detailed ones I have seen as far as describing how magic works and how it feels to be a magic-user. I like them a lot though I confess I haven't read the last wave of them.
David Eddings put out a bunch of stuff in the 80's and the 90's and a lot of it was over-padded crap. To me this is the start of the "fantasy bloat" we are still living with today. If a trilogy is good, what's better? A 5-book series! Of course! So he wrote two of them! About the same characters! Pretty much doing the same thing! And they are very slow! He eventually wised up and wrote 2 trilogies about a totally different world and character after this and those were actually pretty good. So my insight from reading these was that if you, as a writer, think that you have a good story for a trilogy, try making it a single novel. If you  think you have a good story for a 5-book series try making it a trilogy. If you have the brilliant idea to write a 10-book series about a fictional fantasy world please don't - try writing one book and let's see what happens. The Belgariad and The Mallorean were some of the first series I read and came away thinking they were just not that good and had me wondering why 5 books was better than 3 when the story clearly wasn't there. I should credit them as they did open my eyes that not everything publishers issued was great or even good.There's a good story in these books somewhere but it's a shorter story than what was published.

Raymond Feist put out a pair of books that were very good (I thought) and they soon grew into an ongoing ad-hoc series  that's up to around 20 books now - in other words it's another runaway case of sequel-itis. There were in some way based on the author's D&D campaign so at this point we've come full circle to where D&D, inspired by fantasy fiction, is now inspiring fantasy fiction in a new generation of authors.   Now I liked the first book -or two depending on when you read it - and thought it was really good. I thought the first trilogy was good, but then things started to decline for me from there. It is cool to follow along as a character that was a child in the first book grows up and is eventually an old man 10 or os books in but there has to be a limit somewhere. I suppose as long as people keep buying them that "the franchise" must go on and the generational thing does keep the characters on a limited rotation but even that wears thin after a time. I would really like to see experienced successful authors experiment a little more - write a new series set in a different world or try some historical fiction or try some horror or post-apocalyptic book - something other than "the 27th novel in the Riftwar Saga". Good stories deserve a good ending and too many nowadays never get one.

The next-to-last major work I want to mention is one I am just starting - George RR Martin's Game of Thrones. series. I have all 4 of them now but I've been waiting to read them until I know I'm going to be able to do it in large chunks. With the HBO series coming out next year I have more incentive to cover them soon. I have not read them but I have heard nothing but good things about them so I am looking forward to it. Hopefully they rise above a lot of what passes for fantasy these days.

The place of honor at the end of my ramblings here goes to the Discworld novels. I've been reading these since the late 80's and thinking about them now they are the fourth leg of my "triangle of fantasy greatness" that  I mentioned above, which is somehow appropriate. They can be read in almost any order but I have a soft spot for those initial Rincewind books, Mort, and Reaper Man. They are the fantasy equivalent of the Hitchiker's Guide (another major work in my developmental period) and if you like that style of humor you will appreciate them but if you liked that AND have read a bunch of fantasy novels good and bad over the years you will feel like you finally found a home when you start reading those. As a fantasy world the Discworld is better described than most serious fantasy novels. The characters and organizations have more internal consistency than a lot of them too so they meet the real test of quality - they aren't just funny they're good. If you haven't read one then find one at a used bookstore and work it in to your schedule - they're short so it won't take long. I'm betting if you're reading this blog you will probably end up liking it and looking for more.

Anyway that's a chunk of my fantasy lit background  and my view of some of the peaks and valleys of the genre over the last 30 years. The biggest problems I see are that the books are too long, too many authors write sequel after sequel because they can and not because the story demands it, and that much of fantasy has been colored by the assumptions of D&D  as a generation of authors grew up playing it and another generation grew up reading it. These are not universal issues - there are good books out there - but I do hope we see a return to shorter works, self contained novels or trilogies at most. In today's short-attention-span world it seems like it would be a natural path to follow. I hope it comes about.


cyclopeatron said...

Great post! Lots of good fiction!

Your list is a real sausage party though, my friend. I might recommend you check out some female authors some time. Ursula K. Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Margaret St. Clair, Leigh Brackett, Anne McCaffrey, and Tanith Lee come to mind immediately. I think most or all of these authors are Appendix N approved (Lee is listed by Moldvay). Instead of reading that David Eddings hackwork you could have been reading something cool like the Earthsea Trilogy!

I also predict you'd like Jack Vance. You should read The Dying Earth - it's short and great!

I'm holding off on the Game of Thrones until Martin actually finishes the series.

Jeremy said...

I wasn't a big fan of the Earthsea books. Didn't hit me right. When I was young I liked the Weis and Hickman Darksword trilogy just because it was pretty imaginative and fantastic as opposed to say the more historical fiction type fantasy.

And for female authors Melanie Rawn was my favorite author for a very long time. Her Dragon Prince trilogy especially, I loved the idea of sunrunners and the execution of her plot but most especially the relationships between all the interconnected families.

Robin Hobb is also incredible and drives you along but she is also very harsh on her protagonists often isolating them and sometimes outright torturing them. It gets a little depressing at some points, though she always brings it around at the end.

That's the thing I always liked about Jordan's books, while the beginning and middle were tiresome bloat, the end of each book almost always completely made up for it in the sheer scope of things. Now that his final books have been taken over by another author and the beginning, middle, AND end of them are fantastic I finally can point to the Wheel of Time and say that they deserve the place they have won.

Which brings me to my new favorite author, the one who is writing the final WoT books, though I was directed to him before Jordan passed, Brandon Sanderson.

I can't speak highly enough of him, his Mistborn trilogy is the best combination of fantasy, world building, heist, ensemble cast (Firefly?), and cinematic action that I've ever read. He always has ways to constantly make his characters more and more fantastic without ever running into the Superman problem of finding things for them to do. If anything the rate at which the scope increases often times seems to outpace the characters ability to cope only for something setup earlier to pay off big. Very exciting read.

He also does one off books like Warbreaker and Elantris (one off? Not a trilogy? What publisher let him get away with that!?) that are also incredible reads.

Aside from Rawn, Hobb, and Sanderson I also enjoy Martin though having read the first books and been so disappointed by the last book (it was so big he split it in half, but by characters, and all the most interesting characters are in the half he didn't give us) he's not on my good list at the moment. Weis and Hickman again I liked as well as Stephen R Lawhead when I was younger.

I never did get into Anne McAffrey but anyone that merited a Michael Whelan cover certainly deserves a look so I imagine I'll get around to it. David Farland's Runelords books have been ok, I've read a lot of them but they don't have my highest recommendation like the above.

Interestingly the other fantasy that I want to draw attention to now that I think about it are the old Joe Dever Lone Wolf books. They were choose your own adventure type books that followed a single protagonist over a very long intricate campaign. Definately more for youth as that's the lens I look back on them with, but they were certainly a treasure trove of inspiration for my longest running campaign.

Blacksteel said...

It's funny in that I don't normally worry about the sex of the author but you are right - I haven't liked very many female fantasy authors. I read the Earthsea trilogy and wasn't impressed. I do remember it had a very "female" voice compared to say something by Robert E Howard or David Drake who write with a very "male" voice. I do have ELizabeth Moon's Paksennarion trilogy sitting on my shelf and I've heard good things about it. There were also a lot of female writers in the Thieves' World series too. I've liked more female SciFi than Fantasy though - Anne MCCaffrey & Andre Norton in particular.

I also read the Dying Earth books a long time ago and did not really like them. Not sure why they just didn't "click" for me.

One thing I have noticed is that reading a book as a 13 year old then going back and reading it as an adult and a parent often gives me a very different take on a story, but the baseline of liking it/not liking it doesn't really change. I have tried t ore-visit some books that I know are good but that I didn't like as a teenager and, well, I almost always still don't like them, for whatever reason.`

I'll have to look at some of the newer authors y'all have mentioned.