As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve not been writing much lately. I have been reading. It passes the time and expands the mind. Making lists of best books is a fool’s game. Reading is such a subjective experience that any definition of best must depend on the reader, their mood and inclination, and likely enough the place and time of reading. I’m not claiming these are the best fantasy novels ever written but they are all books I’ve reread more than once. If they are part of a series or trilogy then I’ve read the others too but, for some reason, the one I’ve listed has something that causes it to stand out from its comrades in my memory. Oh, and I’m defining fantasy loosely. If the protagonist thinks there’s magic, that’s good enough for me.
The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
The second book of the original Earthsea trilogy is an interesting counterpart to the first. It’s darker and deeper than A Wizard of Earthsea. There’s a quest backdrop to the story but that’s not what’s important: what matters is finding one’s way, becoming oneself, choosing an identity. Its atmosphere is claustrophobic, its society stultifying and oppressive, its evil systematic and mundane. Although some underlying assumptions of the original trilogy have been revisited, and to some extent revised, in the later books of Earthsea, I still prefer those first three stories, and Atuan above the rest. The prose is simple and elegant, pared to the bone and beautiful because of this bareness. Read it for its images: the first sight of the Undertomb, the thudding of Arha’s bare feet as she dances before the empty throne.
The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan (or Richard K. Morgan, if you’re reading this in the USA)
This is a story set after people have come together, regardless of creed, race and orientation, to fight together against the monsters. The battle won, old interests reassert themselves and society reverts to comfortable complacency founded on filth. The fantasy tropes – the elves, the dwarfs, the magician, and the dark lord – are there, and all are twisted about into new forms. All novels reflect something of the time and place in which they’re written, and Morgan’s more than most. This book isn’t comfort reading; it’s cynical and angry, deploying violence to make its point – the complete opposite of gratuitous, in fact. Read it for its fury, and for the best named Significant Sword ever: I am Welcomed in the Home of Ravens and Other Scavengers in the Wake of Warriors, I am Friend to Carrion Crows and Wolves, I am Carry Me, and Kill with Me, and Die with Me where the Road Ends; I am not the Honeyed Promise of Length of Life in Years to Come, I am the Iron Promise of Never Being a Slave.
The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
Published as four volumes but, as with The Lord of the Rings, this is one story and I’m treating it as such. It’s complicated, non-linear, probably not fantasy at all, and has a completely unreliable, unsympathetic narrator who doesn’t know what’s going on and lies about things anyway. Read it for the language and symbolism, the challenge of puzzling out what’s happening and who people are, the rich tapestry woven by its words, not one of which is made up but many of which are not found in other fictions. Not many books have me reaching for a dictionary, but this, on occasion, did. I also spent ages going down the various rabbit holes of the Urth Net archives…
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke
A whimsical novel, an alternative history of England chronicling the return of English magic. It’s a bit like Jane Austen, a bit like Tales of Robin Hood, a bit like The Madness of George III, and entirely like itself. This is one of those books where the story is not the most important thing: it’s a slow build, a delicious unwinding of characters and a drawing together of threads, and everything comes together beautifully at the end; a fine embroidery of a novel. Despite its length and early nineteenth century pastiche, it is a quick, very easy read. Read it for the footnotes and for the narrator’s amused, ironic tone.
The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, Diana Wynne Jones
Not a novel at all but a deconstruction of a genre with a great deal of affection and a scalpel. It’s hilarious and very, very accurate. Read it for the entries on horses or stew or inns or… Well, open it at random and just read it. Whenever you start, you’ll find it’s spot on. Between readings, have a go at her Charmed Life, which would (should) have been on this list too, had I not limited it to five books.