Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Top Ten Best Fantastic Fictions

Now we approach an impossible task: to list the top ten best fantastic fiction stories. Such distinctions are always arbitrary, bound by time, and limited to the artistic sensibilities and personal tastes of the reader. Let this list represent the ten books most widely discussed by critics and the public, most widely named as influential in the field, and generally enjoyed by anyone who goes to the trouble of reading them. These works cover many dimensions, from epic fantasy to fairy tale, from strongly symbolic to vividly semi-historical, from strongly adult-themed to widely appealing for all ages.

Other Top Ten Lists

Chronicles of Narnia series (C. S. Lewis): A group of young children find portals into a parallel world where they help Aslan the Lion and other fantastic creatures in great quests to save Narnia. Seven books loosely connected in a series, all of them strong stories. Often thought of as children's literature, the Chronicles of Narnia are treasured by adults as well.

Conan stories (Robert E. Howard): A wide assortment of short stories and novels in which a barbarian named Conan cuts a swath of savage adventure through civilized lands. Published in many different forms, most recently in a set of nicely illustrated paperback volumes collecting them in order of original publication, the first of which is The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.

Cthulu mythos (H. P. Lovecraft): A series of short stories in which otherwise rational people come into contact with mind-shattering realities of time and space which lurk just beyond the veil of everyday life. Often considered one of the fathers of modern horror and supernatural fiction. There are dozens of anthologies and collections, but the best is the Barnes and Noble complete fictions collection: H. P. Lovecraft:  Complete and Unabridged (Barnes and Noble Classics).

Earthsea cycle (Ursula Le Guin): A linked series of novels in which a young boy becomes the most powerful wizard of Earthsea. Sometimes considered young adult fiction, these are deceptively complex stories. Consists of five novels and a series of short stories, some of whom are directly related, others follow other characters with an overall relationship to the plot. A good place to start is with the Earthsea Quartet.

Belgariad series (David Eddings): follows the coming of age of young Garion, an orphan boy who is destined to defeat the evil God Torak with growing skill in swordsmanship and magic.  The highlight of this series is the colorfully drawn characters that accompany Garion on his quest and the heartfelt relationships that develop between characters.  The series consists of five novels in two omnibus collections, which is continued in the Malloreon and the more loosely-connected Elenium.

Harry Potter series (J. K. Rowling): The tale of an orphan boy and his friends who face an inevitable confrontation with the powerful wizard Voldemort and his legacy in a fictional modern-day England. Written with an eye toward younger audiences, but popular with all ages. The series consists of seven novels in a closely connected chronology.

Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit, and related works (J. R. R. Tolkien): A group of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits set out to destroy a magic ring to bring about the downfall of a world-threatening dark lord (three novels in a single story). Other tales in the series of five novels and collected histories describe other events and periods in the history of Middle-earth, the setting in which this central tale plays out.

Redwall series (Brian Jacques): Talking animals undergo complex, rich quests and adventures in Redwall's fictional Europe. Sometimes considered young adult novels, these may prove difficult because of the complexity of the language. While talking animals may seem a tired fantasy trope, these stories (along with Watership Down) transcend the cliche toward something truly beautiful. So far, eighteen novels published chronicling widely varying time periods and characters in the world; Redwall is a good place to start.

Song of Ice and Fire series (George R. R. Martin): The seven kingdoms of Westeros is falling into civil war as claimants vie for the throne following the death of Robert Baratheon. A vast historical fantasy involving continent-spanning events, frozen threats from the nothern wastes and the predations of an eastern Mongol-like horde across the sea. The first novel begins with a conflict between rival houses for an important throne, but the series broadens considerably with each book. Seven total novels are planned for the series; the place to start is with A Game of Thrones.

Wheel of Time series (Robert Jordan): The Dark One is escaping his prison, and the Wheel of Time has once again caused the Dragon to be reborn, the only man capable of defeating the Dark One, but also the one likely to destroy the world. A massively epic storyline featuring hundreds of characters and sprawling settings. Originally planned to be a series of 12 novels, but this remains a question with the death of the author before the publishing of his final book. The place to start is with The Eye of the World.

Other Top Ten Lists

Having embarked on the impossible road of choosing the top ten best, let's continue the practice. Here are a series of more specific lists, narrowing interest into particular fields of the fantastic.

Top Ten Ancient Works of Fantasy
Top Ten Classical Works of Fantasy
Top Ten Epic Fantasy Works
Top Ten Fairy Tale Stories
Top Ten Best of the New Weird
Top Ten Literary Fantasy Works
Top Ten Anthologies of Short Fantasy Fiction


Anonymous said...

So are these the Top Ten Best according to Jason, or according to "critics and the public?"

Chronicles of Narnia certainly belongs on this list.

Conan for sure belongs here as it's influences, along with Lord of the Rings, and Earthsea, are still seen today.

I've actually just started reading Lovecraft. It freaks me out, but I can't stop reading it.

I've heard that why Gygax was developing Dungeons and Dragons he was heavily influenced by the stories of Lankmar. No idea if that's true or not.

You know, I've only read the first Harry Potter book and at the time I thought that it seemed like Diet Fantasy. I felt that if I'm going to read a fantasy book, I'm going to read one that really scratches the itch, so to speak. I guess I'd better pick it up and give it another try. I've got a letter from J.K. Rowling asking my why I'm one of twelve people in the western world who have not yet read them. Guess I'll get to them after I've read The Da Vinci Code. Plus, why does Dumbledore have to be gay? I saw the headlines saying that a Harry Potter character was gay and I just figured it was that kid with the glasses, seeing as how he always looked a little light in the loafers, but I guess I was wrong. I'm excited to read these books now and experience how much richer they are now that a secondary character has been revealed as gay.

I read the first nine Redwall books. I really like them a lot. They are certainly a little different from the fantasy I usually read, from which I require a lot of violence. It is worth noting that there was an animated series on PBS for a few years that did Redwall and Mattimeo both. I've never seen them for sale anywhere, but we've checked them out at the library and both our kids dig it.

Song of Ice and Fire is in scope and (so far) execution what Wheel of Time wants to be. This one is, I'm sure, what prompted the "strongly adult-themed" comment in the intro.

Wheel of Time is one that started out really good, but then began to gnaw at me with it's characters' annoying behaviors. I think I read that Jordan had a heart attack from all the extertion of dragging this series out for so long. Seriously, once you get over ten novels of the same storyline you're pushing it. Considering that each book is between 700 and 1,200 pages long, once you get to book twelve, you've likely read over 10,000 pages. Do you even remember stuff from books one through five?

Now I must ask, what exactly qualifies something as either Ancient or Classical? I would guess that Beowulf is ancient. But what about something like Rime of the Ancient Mariner? Where would something like the Shannara series belong? Sure it sucks in a lot of ways, but it would be hard to argue that it isn't important from a recent history of fantasy point of view. In the sixties and seventies there wasn't a lot of fantasy around compared to what we have to choose from today, and things like Shannara kept it going. I almost wonder if there will be some overlap between Ancient, Classical and Literary. I'll give you a dollar if you have enough guts to put the Dragonlance Chronicles in your Top Ten Literary Fantasy Works. And speaking of Dragonlance, how many people our age who read fantasy regularly started out with Dragonlance. It's not among the best in plot, writing skill, or original characters, but it has made an impact on the fantasy fiction landscape in that many of the people who we will see emerging as "new" authors in the next decade likely will be of an age where the Dragonlance Chronicles were one of their first fantasy stories read. Mabye you need a Top Ten Influential Fantasy Works.


Jason Campbell said...

Ted, good questions. The idea for the top ten is trying to cover as many possible angles as I could. It isn't intended to be my top ten favorites, but more like a list of ones large numbers of fans would agree on, along with an eye toward how much an impact it had on the overall fantasy fiction world.

I have to say that Rowling is not one of my favorites, though I did read and enjoy a couple of the books. Didn't scratch my itch either, but I beg to differ with millions of otherwise sensible fans.

There were a lot that might have made the list but that I just couldn't bring myself to list, like Shannara or Terry Goodkind. I know they are popular, but "top ten best?"

That's also why I decided to add a few more lists, to leave room for the other types of stuff once you leave the "hall of fame." Dragonlance belongs somewhere, as does Beowulf, as does Gemmell.

Anonymous said...

Got it. Makes sense. I wonder if Harry Potter belongs in the same vein as Dragonlance. These are both series that introduced a ton of people to fantasy that might not otherwise have picked up something like Wizard's First Rule.

Yeah, yeah, Wizard's First Rule had it's problems, but you get my point.

In fact, there's a topic for an ongoing series of posts: Why (insert book title here) didn't turn out as well as it could have.


preacherman said...

Not a bad list at all bro.
I would have added Dune.