Aug 29 2008 10:20am

My love-hate relationship with fantasy

I hate fantasy.

People give me funny looks when I say that. “Jo, you write fantasy,” they remind me gently. “You won the World Fantasy Award. You love fantasy.”

It’s true. I love fantasy. But I also hate it.

I love it because it’s what Tolkien called “history, true or feigned”. Fantasy is feigned history, imagined history. I love history, so of course I want more of it. And I love it because you can do anything with it. Fantasy is a very wide umbrella, and under the name of fantasy there are wonderful writers like Greer Gilman and Pamela Dean and Yves Meynard and Guy Kay are quietly doing marvellous things. I love it because issues are unmuddied. You can be passionately for something in a fantasy novel, it’s allowed. In Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged walks into a bar and declares “Innkeeper, I am on a quest!” The irony has to have worked pretty far within your soul if your heart doesn’t leap at that.

At least, it leaps the first time.

I hate it because it’s boring. It’s all the same. It’s warmed over Tolkien—not even variations on a theme from Tolkien, but repetition of the same theme from Tolkien, on one note. What I hate is what, on rec.arts.sf.written we used to call “extruded fantasy product”. I like reading things where I can put the book down half way through and not be able to predict what happens in the next half, down to where the beats will fall. Fantasy doesn’t do that for me half often enough. I hate it because I have read too much of it and the new stuff isn’t different. I hate it for giving me the exact same fix over and over. I hate it for having a world where you can do anything and having people walk into bars the way they did in 1969 and offering me the same old quest.

But there I am with everyone else, holding my breath until A Dance With Dragons comes out. And I just inhaled all the Vlad books. And Le Guin’s Western Shore books (Gifts, Voices, Powers) are just amazing. And The Privilege of the Sword was probably my favourite book of last year.

It’s not just the brilliant writers I’ve been reading since forever. New people are coming along and doing terrific things within fantasy, things that I like. A year or so ago, Patrick Rothfuss emailed me and asked if I’d give him a quote on his new novel, The Name of the Wind. You wouldn’t believe how much I cavilled. “I’ll hate it,” I warned him repeatedly. But I read it and I loved it. And I love what Sarah Monette’s been doing with the Doctrine of Labyrinths books. I’m waiting for Corambis with just as much impatience.

And it’s all marketed the same. I’ve got to the point where my reflexive reaction to a typical fantasy novel cover is to move on. I’m pretty sure I’d do that with some of my own fantasy novels. So I must be missing things. I don’t only read books by my friends, not at all, I read pretty widely. But I’m wondering what well-written unusual original fantasy I’ve been missing lately. Whenever I do pick up some fantasy at random it seems to be sludge, and what my friends have been recommending recently seems to have things that are actively offputting, like vampires, badly done alternate history, and pirates. (Fine if you like that. But it’s not for me. Zombies, too. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies couldn’t have been any less suitable if they’d been deliberate anti-marketing.)

I don’t promise to read it, and I probably won’t write about it for ages even if I do, but I’ll take all fantasy recommendations seriously. Anyone got any?

Barbara Webb
1. BJ_Webb
Lane Robins's MALEDICTE - a dark, dark, dark fantasy of manners with romance and lots of stabbing.
Blue Tyson
2. BlueTyson
The Books Of the Cataclysm, by Sean Williams. The Crooked Letter, etc.

I have a similar reaction to fantasy to you a lot of the time, but he surprised me with these.

Dunno if you like that weird stuff or not, but The Etched City by K. J. Bishop, and Trial Of Flowers by Jay Lake?

Imaro, Charles. R. Saunders.

On the alternate historical bent, - Kim Newman's Anno-Dracula might well be your thing. Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam, too.
Pasi Kallinen
3. paxed
I'm (unfortunately?) too indiscriminating when it comes to Generic Fantasy Products, but I'd recommend Not Before Sundown by Johanna Sinisalo. It was retranslated as Troll - A Love Story for the Merkian markets.
4. Cinderberry
Fantasy disappoints me too much, which is why I hate it. But I wouldn't be disappointed if I didn't love it in the first place, so...

The books that made me happy in the last year or so were "Bridge of Dreams" by Chaz Brenchley and "The Lies of Locke Lamora" by Scott Lynch. Also, the "Assassin" series by Robin Hobb. (I know it's old, but I'd resisted reading it for a long time.)
5. Skarr
Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson
Sandi Kallas
6. Sandikal
I agree about how so much fantasy out there is just a re-hashing of LOTR. I am a reader who tends to pass by the generic fantasy covers. I've been reading a lot of medieval-style fantasy lately, but only because of on-line reading groups.

The one thing that really makes me avoid fantasy is the multi-volume epic nature of the beast. I don't mind re-visiting a world and its associated characters, but I hate having to do it because nothing in the story was finished in the first volume. I recently read "A Game of Thrones" for a reading group. I enjoyed it, but I'm so ticked off that it is so many volumes, so many pages and it may never be completed. What the heck is that about? I did read "The Name of the Wind" and I liked it. Am I willing to wait another 6 months for a sequel that I would have to buy in hardback to read? I don't think so. One of my favorite authors, C.S. Friedman, came out with a new book recently. As much as I love her work, I will not buy this book because it's the first part of a trilogy and she takes 2-3 years to write her books.

Give me stand-alone fantasy any day. (Can anyone recommend some?)
7. joelfinkle
For fantasy to work for me, it has to be able to surprise, or completely wow me. Of the lengthy fantasy series, Brust's stuff is one of the only ones I grab as soon as it comes out. There are occasional exceptions in standalones, such as Card's cruel "Hart's Hope" but they're few and far between. (To a large degree, if it's a fantasy, it is more likely to end up on my wife's Read Soon pile, and if it's hard SF it goes on mine, and they rarely cross without some jumping up and down on the part of the first reader)

It's the YA authors that seem to be winning at that: Garth Nix's "Sabriel" knocked my socks off, and "Liriel" even more so. Pullman's "His Dark Materials" is another. Magic or spirit is different here.

And now for something completely different: Go read the newly re-released Chinese fantasies by Barry Hughart.
some guy
8. NateTheGreat
I have a series to suggest, but it's not strictly fantasy. It has a lot of the themes of fantasy: good and bad wizards, orcs, dragons, sword fights, dwarves, what have you. But the magic is technological.

The series is called Council Wars, and the author is John Ringo. The first title in the series is There Will Be Dragons. You can find it in the Baen free library.
eric orchard
9. orchard
What are some solutions to this problem? I'm a huge fantasy fan, but it is a big problem, I agree.

Another problem is many fans start by reading "warmed over Tolkien" I did before uncovering the better, more original works that had been produced. So maybe the derivative works have their on place? And I'll also admit I don't have very lofty needs from fantasy. I want a great adventure, well told. Anything more then that is great but not expected.

I think the YA market is less conservative in what it produces: Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer, Prospero's Children by Jan Seigel.

By the way, Baltimore by christopher Golden and Mike Mignola made me love vampires again. Very innovative take on things: vampires as villains.
10. Jim Di Bartolo
I shamelessly suggest my wife's first book "Faeries of Dreamdark: BLACKBRINGER" (Laini Taylor) -- it's about a faerie who hunts devils. Given that she and I enjoy your books, I thought you might enjoy hers as well :)

We also LOVED The Carpet Makers -- highly recommend that as well (although it's a bit more sci-fi than fantasy, but not "hard" sci-fi, and I think it bridges the gap between those two genres quite nicely).

Jason Robertson
11. redag
I've been evangelizing R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy, comprising: The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought. They are heavily informed by Tolkien, but aware of it, and interested in a very different thematic agenda. A follow-up cycle is to begin early next year with The Judging Eye.
12. Chris B in SEA
Thank you, I tend to feel like I'm the only one who feels this way. But the good stuff...

I'm really enjoying Marie Brennan's stuff. Her latest book is Midnight Never Come, a Faerie story set in the Elizabethan age that honestly surprised me in almost every particular. I've gone back to her first novels (a duology recently reprinted as Warrior and Witch), which also takes a lot of the standard tropes and freshens them up considerably and, I'm pleased to say, surprised me.

And I'll throw in another yes vote for Maledicte.
Liza .
13. aedifica
It took me a very long time to pick up Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion because the back cover copy looked like one cliche after another after another. (Boy prince, curse, one man can save the country, blah blah blah.) But then I finally read it, and I was reminded that there's a reason why some of these things are cliches--because when they're done right, they can be extremely powerful story elements. And she did them right.

(Paladin of Souls, the next book, is even better--but read Curse first to have the proper background in the world. Either book can be read as a standalone, but it's not nearly as good that way.)
Seth Bell
14. grey_tinman
I would recommend K.J. Parker's Engineer triology. If you like histories, it is a great one. Very epic, but it is also very much about the characters and the little details. Some people think it's a little too detailed and slow, but the pace was perfect for me.
15. Susan Loyal
Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, and be sure to keep going until you get to An Autumn War (the third and most recent volume) where he really and truly hits his stride and keeps all the promises made in volume one. I think you'll like it. His voice is different than yours, but like you he never wastes a detail.
[da ve]
16. slickhop
I just wrote a whole bunch and then accidently closed my window, sigh.

So in brief, and minus the compelling praise, some suggestions for off-the-beaten path fantasy:

Storm Constantine, Wraethru series
Storm Constantine, Magaravandias series
Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart
Liz Williams (her books often sit between SF/F)

If you haven't read Clive Barker's more fantastic writings I'd recommend them highly.

Carthynne Valente (sic sorry) "In the Child Garden" is pretty amazing stuff too.
JS Bangs
17. jaspax
Yes! You said exactly what I've been thinking for the past, oh, ten years or so. Two bright points:

KJ Parker. Writes brilliant, history-rich fantasy that proves that European fantasy doesn't have to be Generic European Fantasy. Her books are smart and funny and revel in the texture and detail of actual medieval Europe, as opposed to the half-assed plastic knock-offs in so many other stories.

Ricardo Pinto, with his Stone Dance of the Chameleon series. I don't understand why I'm the only person I've ever met that has read these books. It's set in a culture vaguely based on Mayan prototypes, with an incredibly wealthy but incredibly cruel elite, deep (and deeply mysterious) history. And DINOSAURS. The first two books in this series blew my mind. I'm eagerly awaiting the third.
18. Laini Taylor
I feel the same love and hate, and read less fantasy than I'd like for anxiety that it will be disappointing. In fact, I don't think I'd have given Tooth & Claw a try, but my husband brought it home and I LOVED it. Love finding the good stuff -- thank you for that one!

Since my own fantasy series is about faeries, I get asked about my favorite faerie books and I have to reply I don't have any; I'm not really a faerie person. I know it doesn't make sense, but there it is.

And since I write middle-grade and YA, I read those widely too, and agree with Orchard, above. There's some really good stuff being written for kids and teens. I love Garth Nix's Sabriel series (oh, I see somebody mentioned that above, too). Monster Blood Tattoo is outside the usual; great world-building; loved Fly by Night, by Francis Hardinge, though it is but lightly fantasy -- more faux-historical, maybe you would like it.Dragon's Keep by Janet Lee Carey was excellent last year. And oh, many others. But yeah, many more that I found myself skimming and not finishing.
Justin Adair
19. Hobbyns
I'd have to agree. I've been tired of high fantasy for years now, which was just as well as then I began to take an interest in urban fantasy, steampunk, alternate history, and "weird" fiction. Win-win.

I'll second Elizabeth Bear's Amsterdam. For some reason the tone of it reminded me of your novel Farthing, though I couldn't tell you why exactly. (I enjoyed Farthing very much, BTW).

I'm very partial to China Mieville's books (Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council), and someone mentioned K.J. Bishop's The Etched City. I've read and reread all of these books and recommend them whenever I can. Mieville had some choice things to say about Tolkien and "high fantasy" himself, none of them flattering.

Someone mentioned Barry Hughart, and here's a resounding agreement with this, especially Bridge of Birds.

Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora, also seconded. The sequel is also very good and I'm looking forward to the third one coming out later this year.

OK, now to mention some that haven't already been listed here:

-- Auralia's Colors, Jeffrey Overstreet. A unique premise and beautifully written.

-- A Secret History, by Mary Gentle. Very engaging alternate history, complete with golems (I love golems).

-- Tales of the Otori Trilogy, Lian Hearn. An alternate history feudal Japan, with elements of Thief: the Dark Project. Excellent series.

Anything by Jeffrey Ford or Jeff Vandermeer, any of Haruki Murkakami's magic realism books (might not belong in this discussion but I'll mention them anyway). Anything by Neil Gaiman, but that goes without saying.

There's more but I need to get back to work. Thanks for your columns, always a fun read.
20. vcmw
I work as a youth services librarian, so I'm more up-to-date on young adult fantasy.
Holly Black's work is not to be missed. Tithe, Valiant, and Ironside are truly impressive works. I've read any number of contemporary/urban fairy stories, and these manage to do consistently unusual things for that type of story. Partly it's because Black is unafraid to let her characters be damaged in ways that don't get undone.

Another outstanding author of urban fairy work for young adults is Melissa Marr. While I liked her first book (Wicked Lovely), it was Ink Exchange that absolutely blew me away. The characters in this story are beautifully drawn emotionally.

Definitely not young adult fantasy, but I liked Martin Millar's Lonely Werewolf Girl a lot, though I haven't spent the time to think about why. I think the sheer blitheness of it - I hadn't read a contemporary urban fairy story with the tone of a fantasy of manners before, and that's what this felt like to me.
Nina Lourie
21. supertailz
Personally I tend to lean more towards Urban Fantasy - I think it part because of some of the issues you discussed. Urban Fantasy for me has more scope and less sameness to it; Epic/Swords and Sourcery gets omg old quite often for me. Young Adult tends to have a special place in my heart - it tends to have so much more scope.

So with the caveat that that tends to be where I fall:

Jim Butcher - Dresden Files (not the tv show)

Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple - Pay the Piper

Emma Bull - everything. Ever. But particularly of interest right now is an online thing she's doing with E.Bear and Will Shetterly (Also, War For The Oaks by her is still possibly my favourite book of ever.)

In terms of alternate history stuff Stephen Brust and Emma Bull did "Freedom and Necessity". Currently re-reading Patricia C. Wrede's "Mairelon The Magician" for YA alternate history. I can go on for pages about the YA stuff...but perhaps that needs a different thread?

I'm sure I'll come up with many more later. :)
22. J Raitz
I highly recommend the Mistborn trilogy from Brandon Sanderson. Original, fun, and he gets you to care about the characters. Loved it.
Sammy Jay
23. Malebolge
this is an area where i have to give JK Rowling credit; she didn't lean on the Tolkien example.

(hate hate hate Eragon)
eric orchard
24. orchard
This is amazing! I needed a list like this!
Michael Grosberg
25. Michael_GR
Yes, half of the fantasy genre is recycled heroic plot with Evil Overlord on one side of the map and Our Plucky Band of Heroes on the other side. But that still leaves us with the other fifty percent, which is more than enough for a lifetime of reading, and the rate of new non-tolkienesque fantasy coming out is increasing yearly.

Take Walter Jon Williams' Metropolitan for example. It's a fantasy world with tens of thousands of years of history. There are gods Out There somewhere. There are mages. But the magic system is based on Feng-Shui on a massive scale and magic can be stored in batteries and beamed with antennas. There are internal combustion engines, and magically powered flying cars, and of course zeppelins. The heroine is an office drone thrust into a position of power after committing a crime. The sequel deals with the intricacies of parliamentary politics and the aftermath of an armed coup (what happens there bears some similarities to what would happen in Iraq ten years after its writing).

This is about as far from Tolkien as you could possibly get - if you discount Swanwick's _The Iron Dragon's Daughter_ and _The dragons of Babel_ which are nihilistic stories set in an industrialized fairie, a place where biomechanical dragons make up the airforce and mall merchandise is protected by magic charms (and the world doesn't really have any kind of internal logic to it but who cares?).

My head is brimming with more titles but I gotta stop somewhere...
Clifton Royston
26. CliftonR
Exactly how I feel about most fantasy. Exactly.

I haven't read anything new that grabbed me in a while. I'm assuming since you stay pretty au courant, you've probably already read Bujold's Chalion books, and Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter and more recently Dragons of Babel. Those were the most recent fantasy books which really excited me.

I was hoping for something new from the series which begins with The Briar King, but I read the first one, went "meh" and haven't felt compelled to read the rest of them yet.

I'll have to try some of the recommendations here.
Matthew Fisher
27. iguanaaa
I would agree with much of what has been suggested (esp. Scott Lynch, Catherynne Valente, China Mieville and R. Scott Bakker)

If you like Martin's epic fantasy and Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind, then you might also like Steven Erikson's Malazan books and Joe Abercrombie's First Law series.

I'm sure you're familiar with these, but no one has mentioned a couple of older writers who are still writing new stuff, Patricia McKillip (many stand alone books, I especially like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld) and Michael Moorcock (too much great stuff to pick out just one).
Becca Hollingsworth
28. bibliobeque
Heh. A few years ago (reading a book which shall remain nameless because I know a lot of other people like it) I had that reaction of knowing exactly where all the beats were going to fall for the rest of the book by the time I was halfway through. I admitted to myself that it was perhaps unfair of me to think less of the protagonist because he hadn't read as many fantasy novels as I had, but I still haven't gone on to the rest of the series.

I am, however, still hanging on for A Dance with Dragons.

Guy Kay and Patricia McKillip are my favorite fantasists writing today, not least because they can tell a whole story in one book. I second the recommendation of Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion books. I just read Elizabeth Bear's Blood and Iron--I thought I knew where it was going, and I was wrong, so that was great.

I can't recommend this one personally because I haven't read it yet, but Brandon Sanderson's Elantris has been recommended to me as a good one-volume fantasy.
Clifton Royston
29. CliftonR
Oh, just thought of something! Ever read Mary Gentle's Grunts? It's a very black-humored send-up of all the fantasy cliches, with the titular antiheroes being a band of orcs who get their hands on a cache of modern USMC weapons and find themselves machine-gunning their way through hapless elves and hobbits, on their way towards world domination. The orcs are not portrayed as misunderstood good guys, either; they're bad bad bad. Of course, not everything goes smoothly for them...

It's definitely unique, and cleanses the palate nicely after a cloying dose of repetitive high fantasy.
Darren Hawkins
30. wincingatlight
Clearly, the disappearing gonzo writers need to relocate. Jobs for everyone! New wine in the casks! All problems solved. Yes?
Darren Hawkins
31. wincingatlight
For the record, I'm only half-kidding in the post above. That kind of fusion would very likely knock me out.
32. aaroneous
Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen series. It's huge but extremely varied and unlike anything I've ever read before.
Sammy Jay
33. Malebolge
this should go without saying, but anything/everything by Terry Pratchett (granted, Carpet People and other pre-Discworld novels are rougher); his grasp and manipulation of the fundamental story-telling mechanics- and the recipes that go into heroism and villainy - leave me frequently in awe.
Chuk Goodin
34. Chuk
The Kim Newman stuff is good but you might not like them as they're alternate history (but good alt-hist) full of vampires.

I have the same fantasy problem -- I pretty much only read fantasy that's been recommended to me, either in person or by a known-good reviewer, too many EFP out there.

I am surprised there isn't more recommendation for the Malazan stuff. It's great, with some powerful writing in it, but it's got a long complicated timeline and shifts back and forth (as in, the second book is about totally different people from the first book in another part of the world). It ranges from threads about small-time urban thieves to thousand century old weredragons who live in flying castles and makes them all pretty interesting. One warning is that I found the first book (Gardens of the Moon) to be not quite up to the standards of later books. Still good, but he gets better.

I also like a lot of Lawrence Watt-Evans' stuff, but it might be a little too SF-like for some fantasy fans. He tends to set up interesting systems (like Ethshar, where there are about twenty different types of magician) and then play with them. A couple of his Ethshar books are online serials, The Vondish Ambassador is here.
Ken Walton
35. carandol
Well, I know you've never forgiven Mary Gentle for Grunts, but I think you would enjoy Ash: A Secret History (thought it might fall into the "needlessly existential" category) and Ilario: The Lion's Eye and 1610: A Sundial in a Grave.

Robert Holdstock's Merlin Codex books are wonderfully strange and mythical and not at all Arthurian in any normal sense. Sort of pre-Arthurian Europe with the GURPS Celtic Myth rules. I've just noticed the 3rd one's out in paperback, and will be rushing out to buy it.

And talking of extruded Tolkien, Children of Hurin is actually a very good read, unlike most of the Books of Lost Shopping Lists Christopher Tolkien has been responsible for.
Clifton Royston
36. CliftonR
carandol @ 35:
Well, I know you've never forgiven Mary Gentle for Grunts...

Oh dear. So that wasn't an inspired recommendation on my part, then?
Estara Swanberg
37. Estara
Seconding the E. Bear and E. Bull , as well as LMMB recommendations and the Kushiel series.

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Megan Whelan Turner and her Attolia trilogy - someone recently described the setting in a review (somewhere) as what might have been if antique Greece had existed up to the Victorian Age, I think that's correct - but while the plot is great, it's the characters that are the deal clincher. I think they're sold as YA, but I think that's actually a wrong impression, no coming of age here, except for a side character in the third book.

Another epic series the one Sherwood Smith is currently writing in Inda, The Fox and The King's Shield.

P.C. Hodgell and her world I already mentioned elsewhere ^^.

Michelle West's Sun Sword series.

Patricia McKillip Riddlemaster of Hed trilogy - another epic done right.

single titles:
C.J. Cherryh - The Paladin
Judith Tarr - A Wind in Kairo
Shannon Hale - Princess Academy (YA)
Ru Emerson - The Princess of Flames
Nina Kiriki Hoffmann - The Thread that Binds the Bones (I guess that's urban fantasy?)
Jonathan Wylie - Dream-Weaver (I so wish there was a follow-up to that one, but all the threads do finish in a satisfying way)
Nicole Cardiff
38. NicoleCardiff
I think it's down to the skill of the writer. A good writer adds to the trope and plays with it; a mediocre one uses it as a crutch.

I'm echoing the recommendations for Scott Lynch, Barry Hughart, Terry Pratchett, Liz Williams, and Jim Butcher. I liked Melanie Rawn's Ruins of Ambrai a lot, too.
39. Laini Taylor
Ooh, I am making a list. So many suggestions!
Liza .
40. aedifica
CliftonR @ 29: I haven't read that one, but I immediately thought of Diana Wynne Jones' Tough Guide to Fantasyland and Dark Lord of Derkholm. The first is a guidebook to be used on your standard fantasy quest. The second is about a twisted-around sort of standard fantasy quest. It's "what happens when someone from a non-magical world, who nonetheless has a very powerful demon to do his bidding, discovers a magical world and decides to run tours there, regardless of the inhabitants' objections?" from the point of view of the objecting inhabitants.
Michelle Muenzler
41. drachin8
It feels odd trying to make a suggestion not knowing you well enough to feel where fantasy is so tired it's dipped its heels into the earth and dragged you down with it. But here are my two feeble attempts:

"Alchemy of Stone" by Ekaterina Sedia. I am reading this right now and only a few chapters in, but the world is very fresh (to me). A soulless automaton with more humanity than the humans caught in the midst of a political war and a creator who refuses to hand her the key to winding her heart. "The Secret History of Moscow" didn't work so much for me, but this work of Ekaterina's has been mesmerizing so far.

"Last Dragon" by JM McDermott. I know, I know, it has the word dragon in the title, but it isn't really about dragons. At least not like that. It is sort of literary fantasy on crack. I mean that. Really. The story is a tangled web of truths, half-truths, and lies, all filtered through the eyes of dying empress whose memory has become crippled with age. Very unreliable narrator. Pieces of the actual story missing all over the place. Timeline jumps out the wazoo. But despite all this, the story somehow manages to spiral coherently into a maelstrom of vengeance and justice and ambition. Cool book.
Soon Lee
42. SoonLee
I'm reading less fantasy - it's harder to find stuff I like and the individual books are getting fatter, the series longer. Who has the time?

Along with Lois McMaster Bujold's Chalion stories, I'd also recommend Kage Baker's "Anvil of the World" (about a wastrel son of the gods). I'm looking forward to the forthcoming "House of the Stag" set in the same universe.
Samantha Brandt
43. Talia
I'm not so picky about fantasy.. as perhaps evidenced by my chosen screenname.. make a compelling, likeable character and I'm often sold, even if the plot is cliche.

However I have come across some outstanding authors who veer from all the same old stuff. I'm rather surprised no one has mentioned Charles De Lint yet.
Fabulous writer. Pick up anything of his, but particularly the fantasy (he's written a little horror too).

Slightly more typical fantasy, but I adore it so much I'm going to give it a plug anyway (as I dont hear it come up much in book threads), Katherine Kerr's Deverry novels. It involves an ancient curse and reincarnation, which sounds hackneyed but its really well done.. each book hops around from characters in various lifetimes, which sounds like it'd be annoying but its really really not.. you get sucked into every storyline, and its really fascinating to have these various plot threads going featuring different characters who are really the same characters.

In young adult fiction, I'd recommend the 'Dark is Rising' series by Susan Cooper. Themed around Welsh mythology. Very good. Its a pity they did such a hideous job of the movie based on it.

Also the aforementioned Diana Wynne Jones is excellent. I particularly enjoyed her Chrestomanci series (I haven't read 'Witch Week' in at least 8 years but it still sticks out in my mind) and 'Howl's Moving Castle.'
Wesley Osam
44. Wesley
The best fantasy novel I've read in the last couple of years is Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. It's set in the world of City of Saints and Madmen, which I also recommend but which you don't have to read first. City is a collection of short stories about the city of Ambergris, some conventional and some more experimental--a monograph on the King Squid, a history of Ambergris, et cetera.

Shriek is a novel about an Ambergrisian brother and sister--a historian and a gallery owner--muddling through their lives and self-sabotaging their careers while in the background war breaks out between rival publishers, Ambergris is invaded, and something is happening with the native fungus people who live in caverns underneath the city. It's written as the sister's autobiography/apologia, found and annotated by her brother, so there are two simultaneous first person narrators.

I'll also second the recommendations for The Long Price Quartet and The Anvil of the World.
45. cbyler
Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls by Jane Lindskold. Very different from your average fantasy book. I don't want to say too much about it, though, because there's a quite large surprise that would be easy to accidentally spoil.

Oh, and on the subject of Bujold, The Sharing Knife. What if evil doesn't have an overlord and you have to keep dealing with it piece by piece, over and over again, for generations? What does the price of that long war do to the people who fight it, and their relationships with the people who are barely aware of it? And can you really triumph in an epic struggle against... intercultural distrust? I'm really interested in seeing where she's going with this, especially since she apparently has only one more book to go to get there.
Davide Mana
46. steamdave
Not exactly "new", but the list so far has been thin in non-English-language writers, and everything's sort of new, if it's the first time you read it...

Bruno Schultz, The Street of Crocodiles

Italo calvino, Invisible Cities

Georges Perec, Life, a User's Manual

The three go under "literary fiction" in most catalogues, but hey, so do "The Three Musketeers"!

And for the already oft-mentioned Mary Gentle, I suggest "Rats and Gargoyles" as a starter...
eric orchard
47. orchard
Has anyone mentioned Teresa Edgerton? I always thought her goblin Moon duology really deserved wider recognition. Another pre-steampunk steampunk book.
Jetse de Vries
48. Jetse
46 comments, and nobody mentioned Hal Duncan's Vellum and Ink yet?

No wonder (high) fantasy is so conservative...
49. Natalie Rae
It's like you have stolen the internal tirade that was running through my head last week. After finally graduating from university, I have the benefit to indulge in my weakness - building my own library. So, I'm yet again at the bookstore, musing through the sf/f section. And, half an hour later, I finally purchase a book that I take home that leaves me bored and frustrated - high and dry comes to mind.

Here's the thing - I hate Tolkein - I loathe the re-run Tolkeinesque crap that gets pumped out. I love fantasy - or more specifically, speculative fiction in the form of fantasy. Fantasy gives the writer the ability to create a world with its own internal logic and work with it. MZB's DarkOver series did this brilliantly: providing a backdrop for some amazing stories and characters that you love - but also creating a medium to question notions of gender (of both sexes mind you) sexuality, human relationships, medical ethics, the effect of technology on society. Or Pratchett - I don't think I need to outline the amazing, quirky,satirical LOL factor of Pratchett.

After all that - I still like books that are merely stories, rather than a reflexive or critical exploration - and these do exist - and can exist without relying on Tolkein - or another great gripe - creating a different world or system of magic that isn't logical. Really, what is the point of allowing people to fly if it doesn't truly change the way a society work?

Anyway, some authors I would recommend.

Juliet Marillier - beautifully constructed stories. The characters are deftly woven, actually develop noticeably, without taking away from a driving plot.

Neil Gaiman - Gaiman provides his readers with incredibly complex characters set within an urban fantasy setting. American Gods is a fabulous novel that will keep you awake - and also make you think.

Mark Chadbourn - urban fantasy again. Interesting stories with tons of folklore thrown in - but at the same time twisted.

Kate Forsyth - lovely stories - they are epic and the Witches series goes for seven books. Still, they are entertaing, with good story lines, three dimensional characters.

Trudi Canavan - Trudi's first series, (the Black Magician?) is brilliantly written. What truly hooked me was the way she resolved issues - you could tell that the novels were planned - rather than the second and third merely springing up to keep the publisher's money flowing in. However, I detected a fairly large influence from Tamora Peirce, that she moves away from in her second series, The Voice of the Gods.

Thanks for opening this up, I now have a to read booklist again!
Clifton Royston
50. CliftonR
Oh gosh, I love Teresa Edgerton's books. Goblin Moon and The Gnome's Engine are utterly delightful, and her alchemical-influenced series, the Green Lion trilogy is brilliant, too. She's an incredibly sweet person, too; I've met her just a couple times.

Say, she has some recent books out! Wow, I've got to get those.
51. FuguTabetai
I really enjoyed Rick Cook's "Wizardry" series, but I'm in the target audience: the series is about a computer programmer from our world (that's me) that gets transported to a magical fantasy setting. Magic there has rules (something I like) that are very accessible and understandable to a programmer. Hilarity ensues.

If you aren't big on computers and don't know anything about programming you will miss some very funny jokes, but it is a very unusual take on fantasy. It isn't serious, and might fit more into comedy, but I recommend checking out the first book or two, which are available at the Baen Free Library ( I ended up buying the the other books in the series shortly afterward.

I'm pretty sure he never made much money because of how targeted these books are to programmers though. :)
Clifton Royston
52. CliftonR
@ FuguTabetai:

You should try Barbara Hambly's The Silent Tower novels; related premise, but played out very seriously (despite some definite moments of humor.)
Blue Tyson
53. BlueTyson

Jetse, no, it is just that no-one wants to read that. :)
Allyn Edgar Hughes
54. allynh
I read an essay or interview somewhere that might explain what to look for in a novel to be more satisfying. I can't remember who wrote it or where I read it, but essentially they pointed out:

SF- is continuous, uncontrollable change.

Fantasy - is restoring the balance, no change.

Horror - is peeling back the illusion that concealed the dark reality beneath the surface, and being destroyed by that knowledge.

LOTR has all of those elements woven together, which is what makes the story so satisfying.

SF - With each Age the magic grows less.

Fantasy - The Evil destroyed, the king is restored, the Shire made whole.

Horror - Bilbo and Frodo must leave for the West because of the darkness they saw. Sam may someday have to leave when the burden becomes to great. Pippin and Merry are young and mostly untouched by the darkness and can stay.

Most Fantasy only has that one element in it, "and they lived happily ever after" so it begins to taste flat over a long series. If you can find a book/series that has two or even three of the elements, SF, F, H, then you have a book/series that you can read over and over, and each time the Story grows deeper. This works no matter the marketing genre that it is published under.
55. David Ellis
I'll second the John Ringo COUNCIL WARS series. Transhumanist/postsingularity fiction where superscience has made all the things we read fantasy novels for into reality. Bioengineered dragons. Elves as a race of engineered supersoldiers. What's not to love.

Even the let-me-beat-you-over-the-head-with-my-conservative-politics aspect of Ringo's novels (happily not as prominent in these as some of his other books) can't kill the sheer fun of the series.

Another good one from the baen free library that I'm currently reading (and which also skirts the line between science fiction and fantasy) is PYRAMID SCHEME by David Freer and Eric Flint. Aliens transport unsuspecting humans into an a realm where the gods and myths of ancient cultures are real. A light but very enjoyable story so far.
Adrianna Pinska
56. confluence
I have the same problem with fantasy. I never buy anything that looks like generic high fantasy unless I've tried a sample (like a short story by the same author, or a free e-book...), or unless it has been recommended to me by so many different people that it is statistically unlikely to suck.

The Legends II anthology (which I bought to complete my collection of A Song of Ice And Fire), helped me to discover Robin Hobb.

I'm thirding the recommendation for the Long Price Quartet -- I've only read the first two books so far, and I greatly enjoyed them.

There's a Polish writer called Andrzej Sapkowski, who wrote a high fantasy saga in a traditional tolkienesque setting. It's a lot better than that makes it sound -- the main protagonist is an adult monster hunter who gets drawn into a political situation he doesn't really want to be involved in.

It has realistic and complex mediaeval politics, reasonably consistent magic-as-science, an interesting ensemble cast of characters, and fun dialogue. It started off as two collections of short stories, which mostly re-interpret well-known fairytales. Then Sapkowski wrote a five-part series which builds on the characters and places created in the short stories.

The first collection has finally been translated and released as "The Last Wish", and it looks like they're doing the novels next. It's not the greatest translation in the world, but it's OK. The covers look terribly cheesy.

I also recommend China Mieville; his Bas-Lag novels are sort of steampunk political fantasy.

I've read a few of Michael Swanwick's novellas in short story anthologies, and they also stand out as very good. I haven't read any of his novels yet, but I intend to.
57. colomon
Funny, I would have said the trend for every other fantasy book to be a Tolkien rip-off starting dying out twenty years ago. Have I just gotten so good at dodging them that I don't notice they exist any more?

I know a couple of other people up there have already recommended Elizabeth Bear, but I'd like to put in a good word for Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, her two newest and (IMO) best.
Matthew Fisher
58. iguanaaa

In my opinion, there aren't as many blatant Tolkien ripoffs as there used to be (I'm thinking of early Terry Brooks and Dennis McKiernan), but there are still a lot of authors that follow the formula of boy (usually) and friends get thrown into a quest that involves saving the world from evil, often there are powerful allies and a wise mentor, but for some reason the only one who can save the world is this one particular kid (who learns valuable lessons about sacrifice and friendship along the way).

Not all of the stories that follow this formula are bad, but there are a lot of them in fantasy and it can get boring. Examples (some of these I've enjoyed, some not so much): David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, David Drake, Tad Williams, Steven Donaldson, Mercedes Lackey, J.V. Jones.

In addition to similar plots, many of them (though not all) include magic swords, dragons, long lived elves, gruff dwarves, and a map inside the front cover.

Some of it is very well written, but as Jo Walton said in the original post, "I hate it for giving me the exact same fix over and over."
59. nom
I never thought I'd see Steven Donaldson's writing described as "boy & friends" on a quest, and definitely not as an example of the "same fix over and over". Ouch! You sure are tough to please.

However, personal disagreement about individual authors aside, the point is well made and firmly agreed with. Thanks to Jo for raising the issue - I'd stopped buying new fantasy because I just couldn't face another rehash of the same story, with "twist". Reading the posts above gives me hope.

Thanks all.
Stefan Raets
60. Stefan
My favorite fantasies this year have all been mentioned already. "The Wizard Knight" by Gene Wolfe is nothing short of genius. "The Name of the Wind" is the most entertaining novel I read in years. "The Lies of Locke Lamora" was a close second. Aside from that, my second favorite fantasy protagonist (after Vlad Taltos) is FitzChivalry Farseer in Robin Hobb's excellent trilogy of trilogies starting with "Assassin's Apprentice".
61. KatG
Yes, I have lots of recommendations, but I'm not going to give them to you. Why bother? This was not a very creative complaint. It was predictable, it was one-note, and it was a blatant rip-off of many others' complaints who staked a claim to it in 1975.

If you are going to complain that fantasy is the mentally deficient child of fiction, compared to mystery, romance, science fiction, contemporary fiction, etc., then I expect some new and wonderous angle on it, some original insight and turn of phrase at the least. Not just a whine that you write Twinkies of the soul and feel guilty about it, and so have decided to trash all your friends' novels.

And complaining about the covers? It's boring. How is supposed to launch itself as the hip place for sparkling conversation with re-hashed bits like that? I mean, you even did the usual thing of lumping all fantasy fiction under secondary world fantasy. And complained about publishers. How new is that? I expect better if you want me to keep reading your columns. Otherwise, I will move on to something more sophisticated.
62. tetrix
Any* book by Victor Pelevin. As with Murakami mentioned above, this is mainstream using fantasy elements rather than straight-up fantasy literature, but you'll get an amazing - Buddhist? - retelling of the Theseus myth (The Helmet of Horror), Gorbachev's Russia seen as a platformer game (The Prince of GOSPLAN, a short story), were-foxes trying to get ahead in the modern world (The Sacred Book of the Werewolf)... really, I could go on forever.
Oh, and Vladimir Sorokin's "Ice" and its two sequels, although only the first novel is available in English for the time being.

(*)His vampire novel, Empire V, isn't out in English yet, so you can rest easy.
Sam Weber
63. Slither
I'd recommend Matt Ruff's work. He is rather hard to classify, as each of his books is very different from the others, but no book is extruded.
Torie Atkinson
64. Torie
@ 61 KatG:

Complaining that something is boring is--well, it's boring. Since you seem to have a list of things that are not acceptable to mention when discussing fantasy, I'm interested in hearing what you do have to say on the subject.

To the topic at hand: Do these "extruded fantasy product" books really represent the majority of what's published? The incredible(!) number of recommendations here suggests otherwise, and that's certainly encouraging.... I'm going to have to start a spreadsheet to keep track of them all!
65. greyhound
I just read through all the suggestions, and saw one missing that I think you might love. Its a duology called the Orphan's Tales and its by Catherynne Valente. (And it just won the Mythopoeic Award!)

One, Catherynne started as a poet so her writing style is lush, and beautiful, and lyrical in the true sense of that word. Two, it goes in places you can never predict. It is told with a framing narrative of an orphan telling stories to one of the Sultan's sons (and yes the comparison to Scheherazade is intentional). And all the tales the orphan tells weave through each other, until when you finally realize how they all fit together, you are at the end novel, left breathless. It is literally one of the few books in the last five years which made me ache, and want to read all over again immediately.
Felicia Herman
66. fgherman
I can't believe that no one has recommended *anything* by John M Ford.

Go get it and read it. It doesn't matter what genre he wrote in - just read it.
67. KatG
"Complaining that something is boring is--well, it's boring."

Yes, exactly, which is why I was bored by the column complaining that fantasy fiction is mostly boring. I was expecting Walton to talk about her writing, so I did not find it very interesting when the column was actually about how she's bored by the fantasy she's read. If she's going to do that, she could at least try to make it interesting and not say what others have said a hundred times before in the exact same way they've said it. I expect a better class of boredom from a writer of Walton's caliber. :)

Me, I like to look at individual works of fiction, instead of lumping them altogether by type. If you want recommendations, there are dozens, but try Hal Duncan's Vellum and Caitlin Sweet's A Telling of Stars and The Silences of Home.
Wesley Osam
68. Wesley
KatG, #61: This post never comes close to claiming that fantasy is "the mentally deficient child of fiction." The very first thing Walton writes is an explanation of what makes fantasy great, and worthwhile, and why she loves the genre. She then acknowledges that the genre contains books of differing quality and writes about the things that distinguish good fantasy from bad.

(I must admit I'm in agreement, there. I mean, I like the whole guy-on-a-quest motif in theory, but in practice I don't get more than a few chapters into these books when I try them, because the characters are so often so shallow I can't relate to them, and their stories don't surprise me. You know what I'd like to see, sometime? A book where a somebody discovers he's the heir to the throne... and spends the whole book trying to avoid the people who are trying to put him there, because he's violently disinterested in ruling the kingdom. And possibly doesn't even believe in monarchy.)

(Actually, that reminds me of four books I forgot to recommend: Paul Park's A Princess of Roumania and sequels. It starts from the notion that the real world exists in a book, a fiction written to house--you guessed it--the Heir to the Throne. The heroine seems kind of aimless at times, but that's mostly because she spends the series working out what's happening and deciding what she ought to do about it. Meanwhile her bodyguards are having serious identity crises: they had different bodies and identities in the "real world," and they keep slipping back into them. And the villains, like real-life villains, are not really criminal masterminds. They make impulsive decisions, some of them a bit dumb in retrospect; and sometimes their motives are more petty than megalomaniacal; and they're splendidly human.)

Anyway. Back to the point... Walton doesn't trash anybody's novels, and she only specifically mentions writers she likes. The only mention of book covers comes in passing, simply as part of an observation that good fantasy and bad fantasy are often marketed alike.

Your post sort of comes off as suggesting that having criteria that distinguish between good and bad books somehow inherently trashes the genre, which I'm sure wasn't your intention. I notice that in the time between starting this comment and looking at the preview, you have made a couple of recommendations... but if you're interested in a deeper conversation, how about telling us more about what you think makes a fantasy novel good? (I like a few surprises, myself... and a world with some interesting distinguishing features, if it's one of those novels taking place in its own world. And characters who aren't overly sure of themselves.)
Soon Lee
69. SoonLee
Wesley @68:
Might I point you to Charles Stross' "Merchant Princes" series. His somewhat tongue in cheek essay on the series concept might pique your interest.
Wesley Osam
70. Wesley
I've actually been enjoying the Merchant Princes series, although it's still not quite what I was thinking of. I was thinking along the lines of a book that's almost an extruded fantasy product quest-for-the-throne, prince(ss)-vs.-evil-overlord book, with quests, politics, travels over the entire endpaper map, and everybody playing their expected roles... except for the poor slob everybody thinks is the hero, who doesn't care about any of it, thinks their "allies" are entirely misguided, and plots to escape said allies and fulfill their true purpose in life: herding sheep.
Clark Myers
71. ClarkEMyers
I'd wager it's long since read and reread; in any event There Are Doors may perhaps include a quest and long lived elves or perhaps not. Certainly not EFP - though perhaps composed during a period EFP was common. At one time I thought it a comfort read.
Stephen W
72. Xelgaex
Others have mentioned Diana Wynne Jones, but I don't think Castle in the Air has been mentioned so... consider it mentioned. It is a secondary world book, but the hero is from a secondary-Arabia rather than secondary-Europe.
73. cbyler
You know what I'd like to see, sometime? A book where a somebody discovers he's the heir to the throne... and spends the whole book trying to avoid the people who are trying to put him there, because he's violently disinterested in ruling the kingdom.
This happens to a degree in Kate Elliott's Crown of Stars series, although there's a lot of other things going on too. Prince Sanglant (one of several viewpoint characters, most of whom are not princes or anything like it) is a bastard and only half human, and therefore lots of people are eager to line up and tell him he has no claim to the throne; he doesn't actually *want* the throne, but his father favors him over his legitimate children (with some justification), eventually anzvat Fnatynag urve ba uvf qrnguorq. Ur raqf hc svtugvat sbe gur guebar gb xrrc fbzr bgure crbcyr njnl sebz vg, ohg va gur raq znantrf gb ergver gb n zbqrfg rfgngr jvgu uvf jvsr, juvpu vf jung ur jnagrq nyy nybat (naq fnvq fb rira gb uvf sngure gur xvat).

Notably, the end of the series looks like it's shaping up for a garden-variety final battle, and then the story takes several sharp turns in rapid succession and something *really* nonstandard happens with the invading army of monsters. (Although, in hindsight, Elliott had clearly been heading there all along; by the time she gets there, it's not as unthinkable as it would be if the same thing had happened at Helm's Deep.)
Not MyName
74. Anskier
Brandon Sanderson Mistborn books
Jim Butchers Codex Alera and Dresden Files
P. C. Hodgells God Stalker Chronicles
Wen Spencers Tinker books
Dave Duncans The Great Game
Emma Bulls Territory

Are all great

But if your looking for something different I would have to recommend

Jim C Hines Goblin series

A sort of retelling of heroic tales from a goblins point of view, truly excellent
Natalie Costa Bir
75. taelian
Tanith Lee - not a new author by any means, she's been around for decades, but I think her writing is amazing, specifically: 'Biting the Sun' and also 'The Silver Metal Lover', which is a beautiful book about a girl who falls in love with a robot, although actually both may cross over in sf rather than fantasy .
I strongly second the recommendation for Diana Wynne Jones - especially 'Fire and Hemlock', I still find new things in that book when I read it, and also 'Witch Week', 'The Homeward Bounders' and the Dalemark Quartet.
I agree with everyone who suggested Lois McMaster Bujold's 'The Curse of Chalion' and 'Paladin of Souls' (which won a Hugo) - although the third book in the trilogy, 'The Hallowed Hunt', doesn't come up to scratch.
Another author not mentioned here is Isobelle Carmody. I love her first series (Obernewtyn) - but it's been ongoing since 1987 ... so you can see she's not an author who -finishes- her series. Her Legendsong trilogy - Darkfall, Darksong - is thoroughly worth reading, despite the third book not yet being out (and probably not likely to be for years considering her track record - she has at least three ongoing series and NO finished ones. And I mention again ... 1987!).
Maurizio Manzieri
76. MaurizioManzieri
...there is the recent Saga of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone by Greg Keyes, strongly advised by the George Martin fans. The fourth and last volume in the series, The Born Queen, has just been published...

Well, I'm hating it, but I cannot stop turning the pages of Volume Two...
Martin Wisse
77. Martin_Wisse
Two recommendations of new fantasy writers I've discovered this year. The first is Hal Duncan whose duology Vellum and Ink blew my mind.

The second is Steph Swainson, whose first novel The Year of Our War takes the cod-medieval setting of your average thick fantasy and makes it interesting.
78. paddyboomsticks
Edward Whittemore.

Imagine Durrell crossed with Harry Harrison, but no SF. Takes the levantine setting and poignancy of Durrell, leaving behind the pretension and most of the labored prose, and picking up the irrevency, humour, and zaniness of Harrison.
Clark Myers
79. ClarkEMyers
#68/73 - John Buchan did that in a War of the Roses setting where the lost prince stays a stable boy because he really is disinterested - and thereby shows his qualification for the crown by giving it up in the interest of a settled country after all the preceding warfare. Arguably a statement that the health of the realm does not depend on rule by the true king or perhaps a statement that the health of the realm depends on proper action - great sacrifice - by the true king.

I'd distinguish this from the stories of the lost prince who doesn't actually want the throne and is thus uninterested.

See also the succcession in Glory Road perhaps an edge case for fantasy/science fiction.
80. KatG
"but if you're interested in a deeper conversation, how about telling us more about what you think makes a fantasy novel good?"

Wesley, I don't think that someone saying they thought a fantasy book was bad is trashing the genre. But that's not what Walton's article was doing. She was talking about -- to borrow a phrase from one of the other posts' description of a book -- the health of the realm. And I strongly disagree with the picture she paints about that, a picture that has often been used, which tars all fantasy writers with the same brush, and helps keep people from trying it out and keeps the category market perceived erroneously as a ghetto of, what was the phrase, "extruded fantasy product."

What I think makes a fantasy novel good, for me and me only, is if I liked the characters, writing, story, structure and themes it is exploring. Sometimes, I don't. But even if I read several books that don't do it for me, I don't then declare the fantasy field to be mostly a mess, any more than I would do so about fiction in general, just because I read some books I didn't like much or found boring.

Just like, even though I was not very impressed with the writing of Walton's article, I do not therefore conclude that all her writing must be poor -- as it certainly is not -- or that all fantasy authors who write articles don't know what they're doing and just rehash each others' points.

But for me, this article was the equivalent of an older person complaining that those kids today are selfish loafers who spend too much time on the Internet, t.v., rock 'n roll music, and a younger person complaining that all old people are uptight and bossy. It's a bunch of hot air.
Torie Atkinson
81. Torie
@ 80 KatG

Fair points, though I ask that you please stick to criticizing what was said in the blog post (as you do in the first few paragraphs), not who said it (as in the last few).

However, I think you're selling Jo's post short. I didn't get the impression she was arguing that fantasy is a "ghetto". On the contrary, I felt she was arguing that the handful of EFP books that seem to dominate marketing both aren't representative of what the genre is capable of and get so much attention that they detract from all the other fantastic, wonderful, creative books out there she so very much loves--those mentioned both in her blog post and listed in the comments as examples of books that make fantasy great. It's not a hate relationship, after all, it's a love-hate relationship. And as the readers of this thread have proven, fantasy right now is as diverse and relevant as we could have hoped--it's just not those books that seem to get the attention.
82. Techslave
@80 KatG:
Interestingly enough, I AM a young(er)(ish) (now) reader who feels much the same. I note there are wonderful, awesome exceptions. But when I walk face-first into an archetype hero story over and over when I desperately peruse the shelves trying to give new authors a chance, I feel nausea. And worse yet, some of the original and groundbreaking fantasy works are being marketed in precisely the same way as the rehashed tales of Generic_Hero and his companions on their Generic_Quest for Generic_Fame_Or_Fortune.

Mind you, a story about archetypes can be wonderful. Sherri S. Tepper's A Plague of Angels, for example. But Sherri S. Tepper melds science fiction and fantasy well. As does the previously mentioned Gene Wolfe.

Mind you, I feel the same queasiness when I see generic 'dark romance' novels filling more and more of the shelf on a daily basis. My only hope is that by cover-to-cover osmosis they receive some infusion of originality that goes beyond skin deep. Ooh, look. My heroes are vampires! Ooh, look, my heroes are werewolves! Ooh, look, mine are witches! Ooh look, mine are were-ponies! See, I get caustic even thinking about it. These books fall below my "Stasheff scale" which indicates adequate reading materials suited for plane flights, in general, though there are of course exceptions. Then we have authors like Charlie Huston, whose Joe Pitt casebooks are an interesting sub-genre of their own.

But I think the most important point Jo was making was to make clear, in the posting, what her tastes were for and against. So that recommendations would be given in this light. You know, down there at the summation of the posting.

That said, Jo, here is my recommendations:
A seconding for Joe Abercrombie, as you at least have characters with flaws of being likable or disliked but still being able to sympathize with them.

Since pirates are on the 'off' list, I would strike Sherwood Smith's "Inda" and sequels, but it definitely blends things without being pirate-worship of the type you might find distasteful. And definitely has some very good moments of its own.

Or, if a more whimsical bent appeals, A. Lee Martinez has quite a few interesting books in a few different genre classifications.

I would fall back and recommend something that, if you have not read it, might be enjoyable fantasy: Elizabeth A. Lynn's series of: WatchTower, Northern Girl, and Dancers of Arun. Older, but definitely awesome.
Soon Lee
83. SoonLee
Can't think of an example that fits it off the top of my head, but that sort of inverting the archetype is probably more common in comic fantasy. Rincewind from Pratchett's Discworld is one that immediately springs to mind.
84. rushmc
>>And now for something completely different: Go read the newly re-released Chinese fantasies by Barry Hughart.

Absolutely. Bridge of Birds is genius.

Also Matt Ruff and Jonathan Carroll.

(This list looks to be worth its weight in gold!)
Sandi Kallas
85. Sandikal
Rushmc, I'm going to check Barry Hughart out. I like the concept.
Soon Lee
86. SoonLee
In which case, you might also want to check out Liz Williams' Detective Inspector Chen novels which also draw inspiration from Chinese folklore, but in this case, set in the future where cities are franchised; Detective Chen lives in Singapore Three.

I am also reminded of Nalo Hopkinson's "Brown Girl in the Ring" which draws upon Caribbean folklore. Actually, stories inspired by non-European myth & folklore would be a good starting place when looking for unusual fantasy.
Gary Gibson
87. garygibson
I'm coming from a touch outside of this subject because I've read very, very little fantasy and don't regard myself as a fan of the genre, but if people want 'outside the box' or at least 'peeking into the next box' suggestions, I do have some.

First - I'd say Holdstock's Mythago Wood, actually one of my favourite novels ever, ever, except I regard it as a work of sf, not fantasy. It has more to do with Jung and Joseph Campbell to my mind than princes and elves (no disrespect intended).

Outside of that, some people might want to check out City of the Iron Fish by Simon Ings, the very closest that author came to writing 'fantasy' as we know it. It instead turns out to be a kind of deconstruction of fantasy in which a world is actively created by those living within it. Absolutely brilliant.

Outside of the genre, there's The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte, which features a shady book dealer attempting to locate copies of a book - purportedly written by the devil - on behalf of a mysterious book collector. It was made into a not-bad movie starring Johnny Depp (can't remember the name) which however chucks a lot of what's in the book right out the window.

And I'll second the recommendation of Jonathan Carroll. I've read most of his books. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much it for my fantasy collection.
Samantha Brandt
88. Talia
Waiiit a minute. Doesn't like vampires, doesn't like pirates.

*backs slowly out of the room*
89. apricotmarmalade
Glen Cook

I can't get enough of him. There's some of his earlier books which have throwaway lines containing plot points other novelists would have ground sequels and sidebars, graphic novel adaptations and superfluous novellas out of (I'm looking at you Mr Martin)

Although I do like the Steven Erikson novellas, and don't consider them superfluous - the fun is too brief and wierd for them to fit into his actual novels.

But back to Cook - his new series is bite your lip, tear through page after page fuelled by too many pints of water and not enough toilet breaks, good. I adore.

PS - I love zombies. Sorry. Love em. Ninjas. Zombies. Bicycles. Bears. If I could write a novel with those four elements as the key hangers, I would. And it would be exactly the kind of book I'd want to pick up.
Sandi Kallas
90. Sandikal
Soon Lee, thanks for those recommendations too.

I actually prefer science fiction, and fantasy is something I'm just now venturing into. Charles de Lint is a favorite of mine, so it's pretty obvious that my taste in fantasy does not go to LOTR type series.
91. A. C. Paul
For a fantasy series that approaches originality, I would suggest P. C. Hodgell. Her books might be out of print, but they're astonishingly good, and since she's finally been picked up by Baen, they will all be re-released. First book is God Stalk.
92. Janice in GA
When I see ANY non-Tolkien book that has elves or that has somebody going on a quest to reclaim His Heritage as Rightful Ruler, I want to throw that book across the room.

And anything with "faeries" will almost certainly be something I'd hate. And don't get me started about the "fae" or "fay" or whatever. Jeezopete. They're elves in another guise. It's been done, and probably better than a writer using those terms would do it.

I have been reading fantasy and sf for almost 50 years, and it's pretty hard to impress me these days. There's way too much recycled crap out there. The good, original stories are hard to winnow out. Susannah Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was the first really interesting take on fairies in AGES.

I agree with Ms. Walton.
93. Reddwarf
For stories based on nonstandard mythologies - Sarah Zettel's Isavalta books are mainly based on Russian mythology, or Elizabeth Boyer's Norse fantasy books - which are pure Scandanavian (rather than post Tolkien pick n mix)

Darrel Schweitzer's Mask of the Sorceror is worth reading as are Michelle West's Hunter and Sun Sword books

Anything by Patricia McKillup or Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I would also recommend Dan Crawford's Cat & Mouse books, Glen Cook's Black Company (& Garret PI), MA Brenner's Catastrophe's Spell and L Watt-Evans Ethshar books
Sandi Kallas
94. Sandikal
Am I correct in thinking that many of these non-typical fantasies are more likely to be found on the fiction/literature shelves than the science fiction/fantasy shelves at the bookstore? I've never seen anything by most of these authors on the shelves.

Amazon just keeps seeming easier and easier.
David Gillett
95. TheRazor
Its a genre that's convoluted. Its good versus evil. A hero and a villain. Its gotten stereotypical and cliche but its such an appealing genre that I keep coming back for more.-DavidG
96. KatG
I don't agree that good stories always or mostly get ignored. Susannah Clarke's novel was a huge bestseller. Neil Gaiman is a bestseller in several mediums. Liz Williams' series is climbing the charts. Charles de Lint has been well-known and a bestseller since the 1980's. Some other people you like may be less well known, and some authors you don't like may be very well known, but that's the same mix you get for any type of fiction. Statistically, most fiction put out will not interest you, but it might be very interesting to someone else.

I don't have a problem with fantasy cover art. I don't hate quest stories. I don't hate stories with elves. I'm not mostly bored by fantasy, not at all. I disagree with Walton's view of the fantasy field, though I agree with her views about the Singularity. And I think her view about what she hates about fantasy helps perpetuate a stereotype about fantasy fiction that is false.

I also think that Walton -- besieged by publishers seeking promotional quotes -- is sufficiently familiar with fantasy offerings to not need anyone's recommendations. But for those of you who want some, here are some authors to consider -- a small fraction (I'll try not to repeat others' suggestions, but can't guarantee it):

Mario Acevedo
James Barclay
Clive Barker
Toby Barlow
Jonathan Barnes
Elizabeth Bear
James Blaylock
Patricia Briggs
Emma Bull
Mike Carey
Jonathan Carroll
C.J. Cherryh
Paulo Coelho
Alison Croggon
John Crowley
Peter David
Pamela Dean
Keith Donohue
C.S. Friedman
Barbara Hambly
Tom Holt
Tanya Huff
Charlie Huston
Alexander Irvine
Kij Johnson
Gregory Keyes
Jay Lake
Jonathan Lethem
Scott Lynch
Robin McKinley
China Mieville
Sarah Monette
Christopher Moore
James Morrow
Ricardo Pinto
Tim Powers
T.A. Pratt
Kevin Radthorne
Justina Robson
Johanna Sinsilan
Sean Stewart
Matthew Stover
Harry Turtledove
Gary Wassner
David Wellington
Patricia Wrede

Some old and new, and the tip of the iceberg. You won't like them all, but they and the other names put up here might be of interest to at least some.
97. Keita
I apologize, I'll probably be repeating some of the other comments, but I wanted to throw in my 2 cents as someone who can't get enough fantasy.

Robin Hobb -- Seconded. In my opinion, she just keeps getting better and better.
Lois McMaster Bujold -- also seconded. I gave them to my dad and he couldn't read them fast enough, something that rarely happens for him anymore. I heard her talk about a year ago, it was fantastic.
Brandon Sanderson -- Again. I absolutely love the work he's doing, and he specifically set out to destroy some of the overused archetypes.
Kate Elliott -- check out her new series, Crossroads. It has a promising start with Spirit Gate.
Richard K. Morgan, one of my favorite noir SF authors, is entering the fantasy world soon. I can't wait.
Kristen Britain -- I was disappointed that her latest wasn't wrapping up the series, but that just means I get to read more.
Sean McMullen's Voyage of the Shadowmoon is utterly brilliant, but unfortunately the series kind of goes downhill after there. Still worth a read.
I can't believe no one's mentioned Naomi Novik yet. I love her alternate history version of the Napoleonic wars... with dragons! Yes, I'm a sucker for dragons, but what she's doing is very different than the archetype.
Also a fan of Jane Lindskold's Wolf series. The opening book is the best.
Lastly, Maria Snyder and Sharon Shinn have both written series that aren't as deep or profound as some of the other ones I've listed, but I find them enjoyable nonetheless.

A not-so-glowing recommendation:
R. Scott Bakker -- I had such high hopes after the first book, it was excellent. I was severely disappointed by #2 and #3. Specifically, by the way his female characters get treated. And the end that was nothing near an end.
Nina Lourie
98. supertailz
Just a quick note - not perhaps in the same mindset as the fantasy being mentioned in the comments, but if you want lighthearted and not-taking-itself too seriously A. Lee Martinez's books (particularly The Automatic Dectective, though they are all great) and John Moore's books (particularly Heroics For Beginners) are ones to which I keep coming back.
Ingvar Mattsson
99. ingvar
I'll have to third Joe Abercrombie's First Law books (though I've only read and can positively vouch for the first two)
Jason Robertson
100. redag
@Keita in 97:

I'm sorry you're disappointed by how the later Bakker books developed, and I know the issue of his female characters has come up elsewhere. The author has discussed this point elsewhere on the internet (notably at the forum at before he decided the internet was too distracting to mix well with his writing career. Sadly, I can't find a direct link in the time available for typing out this comment. I thought his comments made it clear he was writing his female characters from a point of view consistent with modern views on gender equality, but in a world without that conception and with female characters trapped within their own internalization of those norms. Internalized constraints being a tremendous theme of that trilogy, of course.
Jo Walton
101. bluejo
KatG -- if you think I'm lying about wanting recommendations, I don't know what to say to you.

Everyone else: Thank you. There are a lot of things suggested here I've already read, and many of them I've liked. The rest I'll be checking out.
102. Spera
Charles de Lint.
james woodyatt
103. jhwoodyatt
"...but I’ll take all fantasy recommendations seriously. Anyone got any?"

Yeah, actually: the unpublished manuscript for which I haven't seriously begun sending out queries yet.

Okay, forget I said that. Seriously though, you certainly must know how tough it is to write a query letter for a fantasy novel without the hook sounding utterly ridiculous out of context. Let's be honest: that's a big hurdle to get over when you're just starting out, and that barrier to entry probably goes some way toward explaining why there's so much Epic Fail in published fantasy. The extruded product sells at a more predictable rate, and low beta is a feature-not-a-bug for both publishers and career writers. As in most markets, the customers interested in lovingly hand-crafted, individual artifacts are vastly outnumbered by the ones who prefer product consistency over novelty.

For my next trick, I'll write a fantasy about a market where the reverse is true, and it's an intractable problem needing heroic efforts to solve... or, maybe not.
james woodyatt
104. jhwoodyatt
Oh yeah... let me second Barbara Hambly's Silent Tower books. Those are very good, if a little dated.
105. Dawn K.
I believe how you tell a story is just as important as what story you're telling. That's why Patricia McKillip is my favorite author. Her writing is simply gorgeous. I enjoy anything by Robin McKinley and Sharon Shinn. I also like books by Rosemary Kirstein, Nina Kiri Hoffman, Sheri Tepper, Keith Miller, Jane Lindskold (specifically "Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls"), Phillip Pullman and Kathleen Duey (specifically "Skin Hunger").
106. Gizella
I'm not surprised that after years of reading fantasy, so many fantasy stories seem to blur into much of a sameness. On the other hand, this shouldn't surprise anyone too much, since students of literature have long determined that there are only a very limited number of basic storylines anyway (depending on who you read, that can be 3, 7, or 11). In the end the power of the story won't so much be in its originality, but in the connection you the reader make with both the characters and the world in which they live.

So after decades of reading science fiction and fantasy - and in recent years gravitating more to fantasy, since the grim vision of cyber noir seems to have over-taken most of the hard sci-fi oevre - what I look for in fantasy is not necessarily an original story. I want to be pleased to enter the world the fantasist has created. I want to be engaged by the people in that world - I don't necessarily need to like said people, but I do need to care about what happens to them. I'll admit certain fantasy tropes automaticaly put me off: most stories involving fairies, elves, dragons, etc. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised - but very rarely. Vampires and other undead, the monsters out of the savage garden in general, also really put me off, there are no pleasant surprises here. And for the rest, as Jo (and others) have mentioned, many fantasy novels are just poorly written.

So having said all that, some authors who over the years have delighted me with their work:

- Sean Russell (the Iniate Brother duology, the Moontide and Magic duology, etc. I'm really sad to hear that he's not currently writing novels, but instead video games)
- Patricia Mckillip (The Riddle Master of Hed Trilogy, and almost all her other standalone novels)
- J.V. Jones
- Kate Elliott
- Robin Hobb
- Steven Erikson (Malazon Empire)
- David Keck (gritty medieval fantasy, quite different)
- C.J. Cherryh
- Kage Baker
- Lois Mcmaster Bujold
- Paul Kearney
- Carold Berg (her recent duology, Flesh and Spirit, Breath & Bone, were great. Previous novels were so-so; this is an author who is beginning to hit her stride).
- Guy Gavriel Kay
- Sharon Shinn
Crystal B
107. Amaunette
Forgive me for possible repetition, since I did not read every single comment above.

I think it's a little unfair to say that all fantasy written in the tradition of Tolkein is not worth reading. You did, after all, enjoy Pat Rothfuss's debut (as did I), but there's very little new here. NotW is popular particularly because it's what people want to read, it's well written in a carefully built world from a writer who knows his character well, but it isn't original like some other fantasy novels are. I don't usually like "original" books because of their strangeness. If you don't want to write about dwarves and elves, you're left making up a new race, which in order to be original are often difficult to identify with. I think it's unfair to label fantasy that may involve one of the well-known fantasy tropes (swords, dragons, stablehand-turned-king, magicians) as unoriginal when what really matters is the way the story is told.

However, I see no hope of convincing you of this, so I would like to recommend Cathrynne Valente's "In the Night Garden," which is a story in 2 volumes from a fantasy world that seems to be where fairy tales all came from. The structure of the work is also interesting, since it is a Russian nesting-doll type novel, with stories-inside-stories ad infinitum. The stories are often strange but sometimes familiar, and the author often pokes fun at fantasy tropes.

I would also like to recommend Patricia McKillip's work to those above who prefer single volume fantasy. I particularly enjoyed "Ombria in Shadow," which feels to me similar to Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" anime movie. But it's hard to put a finger on exactly why. McKillip often writes of common fantasy themes but evokes a sense of wonder and enchantment in every event. In that way her work reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay's novels.
Andrea Leistra
108. aleistra
They're not really fantasy, despite the dragons, but Naomi Novik's Temeraire series (starting with His Majesty's Dragon) are a lot of fun. Any fan of Patrick O'Brian should give them a try.

I agree with Orchard that nominally-YA fantasy seems to be more inventive these days -- have you read Mieville's Un Lun Dun? It turns the "chosen hero" trope on its ear and is wonderfully strange. It's a lot less grotesque than his Bas-Lag novels, too.
109. oab
The fact that I can be commenter 109 and still have several authors to contribute which have not been mentioned yet does indicate that there are a lot of orignal fantasy out there.

Books/series which have not been mentioned (unless I missed it):
Carey's Kushiel trilogy. It has quests, but is still far from a standard fantasy.
C. S. Friedman's Coldfire trilogy is original and well written.
Brust, who's Taltos series (starting with Jhereg) is very far from standard fantasy.
Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori trilogy
Rosemary Kirsten's Steerswoman series

As for books/series others have recomended let me second:
Bujold's Curse and Palladin
Cook's Black Company series
Steven Erikson's Malazan series
Robin Hobb, especially her Liveship Traders trilogy
Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora
Nix's Sabriel
McKillip's Ombria in Shadow
Naomi Novik's series
Brian Sanderson's Elantris

And Jo herself recommends GRRM and Monette which I very much agree with despite the fact that neither series is finished.

Disclaimer: Sabriel, The Coldfire trilogy, the Kushiel trilogy and the Steerswoman trilogy does, IIRC, contain quests, even if they are not the standard 'young boy and powerfull wizard' sort of quest.
Soon Lee
110. SoonLee
How are the Temmeraire books not fantasy? It's got dragons. Dragons!
Brad Heacock
111. badllama
I'd recommend the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. It's heavy on the political intrigue and fairly light on the whole 'magic solves everything' side of fantasy.

I would warn not to get overly tied to a particular character though, Mr. Martin has a habit of whacking a lot of them over the course of the series.
112. Eliza Wyatt
Well... you've already listed some of my favorite books (Love Martin, love Rothfuss).

I'd have to say... Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds. A story about an ancient China that never was. Half fantasy, half Chinese fairy tale, glazed with a touch of satire towards the fantasy genre, hilariously funny and strangely touching.
113. hedgehog
Jo @ 110 said:

KatG -- if you think I'm lying about wanting recommendations, I don't know what to say to you.

I don't think they think you're lying; I think they think you don't need recommendations.

But I also think they should take your request more seriously, and I believe they are seriously misreading your post.
114. hedgehog
Oh, and three books that I don't think are alluded to above (but surely you've read them already?)

Peter Beagle, The Last Unicorn. I suppose there's a quest, and there's certainly a king, a prince and a wizard as well as the titular unicorn. The book is pretty much completely unlike what you might guess from that lineup.

Caroline Stevermer, A College of Magics. The heir is a woman, sent away to a finishing school which might (or might not) produce witches; even if it does, students are forbidden to practice magic on the premises.

Robin McKinley, Sunshine. Warning: vampires. But much baking, and vampires are fast and terrifying and generally bad. And the non-general part is pretty well done.
Jo Walton
115. bluejo
Hedgehog: Thank you, great recommendations, I have read all of them and I like them, even Sunshine.

The true win of this post, now nearly a year ago, was Daniel Abraham.
116. dwndrgn
Goodness, thank you Jo for posting again to this thread so I could read your original post and all of the comments. I've got new books/authors to add to my list.

I've been enjoying Abrahams Long Price Quartet as well, have finished the first two and will be reading the next two very soon.

Thanks again!
118. sol-gabrien
Tanith Lee - The Silver Metal Lover - in fact, most books by her.
Storm Constantine - Wraeththu series
Holly Black - Valiant, Tithe and Ironside
Melissa Marr - Wicked Lovely and Ink exchange
Patricia McKillip - winter rose
119. sol-gabrien
Oh, I forgot to mention the Damiano trilogy by R A MacAvoy - really enjoyed this set.
john mullen
125. johntheirishmongol
Just ran across this, and if you ever poke your head back on, theres a lot of good and bad out there. Truthfully, not a big fan of Tolkein so I didn't worry about variations on a theme. What I do care about is characters I like, humor, and plot. Make the lead character someone I want to win, make the plot make sense and be logical (even plot twists need to be accompanied by some justification and not just a mcguffin). Expecting great originality from every story is just not in the cards. Besides there are only a few great plots and Shakespeare pretty much covered them all.
David Lazinski
128. davidlazinski
Tolkien is considered the founding father of the Fantasy genre (maybe and maybe not. So they say). But even when it comes to brilliant writters...creation and invention of something new under the curse and blessing of Tolkien is very very hard, next to impossible if you see what I mean. Most of these writers if not all have been inspired by Tolkien, and its hard for them to drift to a different line/model. One of the best articles that prove this is written by Sarah Monette, I so loved this article and its a must read for current fantasy writers and wanna be fantasy writers. Here is the url
130. Marysia
You're missing out on my stories (kidding!), once I finally publish them. They are plenty different from the norm, so much so that I wonder sometimes if agents will tell me they're not marketable. ;)

Jokes aside, I hear and share your pain. I've been reading fantasy all my life with no intention of stopping, but there's a lot of derivative stuff out there. However, I also know where to find the "good stuff." I mostly read older authors, because the people my age aren't doing much for me these days.

I'm pleased to see Ursula K. Le Guin in your article! She is indeed fantastic. You might also add Peter S. Beagle, Robin McKinley Juliet Marillier, Sharon Shinn, and Tanith Lee to this list. The author I can probably recommend most is Patricia A. McKillip. Her work is incredibly sophisticated and also beautiful, almost musical. I am in awe sometimes of her intricate plotting and poetic descriptions. You will never guess where her stories are going. They are surreal in the best of ways. Alphabet of Thorn, Harrowing the Dragon, Song for the Basilisk, and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld are great places to start.

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