Jun 28 2013 11:00am

Eight Books From the Last Decade that Made Me Excited About Fantasy

Eight Books From the Last Decade that Made Me Excited About Fantasy by Jo Walton

It was easier to think of the science fiction list, because science fiction gets me more excited than fantasy does. I’m not sure why this is. It may be because I write fantasy, so there’s a certain element of “If I can do that, anyone can do it.” Nevertheless, once I started thinking about it, it was quite easy to think of things. Oddly though, much more than with the SF list, these are series. Fantasy lends itself to series, I suppose?

Again, these are not intended as a “best” or a “favourite” list, they’re simply books that got me excited about the possibilities of the genre.

First is Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. These books are amazing and doing something really different. There are four of them (A Shadow in Summer, A Betrayal in Winter, The Autumn War, and The Price of Spring), and they get better as they go along. They are a complete series that you can confidently start reading knowing you’ll be able to finish it in your lifetime. Each volume has good completion, meaning that although they make one complete whole they also make four satisfying individual books. They’re set in an unusual world with a fascinating magic system that affects everything about the culture and history and economics of the world. They’re the story of unique people shaped by those things. And they’re set fifteen years apart, so that the main character begins at fifteen, and is then thirty, forty-five and sixty in the other three volumes. I can’t think of anything else that does this. The other thing that really excited me about them is the way the fascinating integrated magic is changed and changes and how brilliant this is. These are a feigned history, but the metaphysics is integral. I love them.

Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths series isn’t quite as successful, but it’s also excellent and complete in four volumes. What got me especially excited by these books is the combination of the power of the voice with the complexity of the world. This is a world at a very interesting tech level and with very interesting integrated magic. It’s a gritty world in which awful things happen and don’t get put right, and the first book, Melusine, begins with the very brave decision to show one of the first person narrators, Felix, going insane. The other narrator, Mildmay, is very foul-mouthed and intensely readable. It’s also a fractally fascinating world.

A Stranger in Olondria Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria only came out last year and I’ve only read it once and not written about it yet. But there was a brilliant review of it on this site by Amal el-Mohtar, which is what I’ve linked to. I know Samatar primarily as a poet, and it is the poetic nature of this book that makes it outstanding. It’s another fantasy world that feels completely real and which integrates its magic into its history—and in this case also its literature. This is the story of a young man who falls in love with a country through its literature and then travels there and finds—well, what he finds is what the book is about. It seems to me comparable to Black Wine and Kalpa Imperial—it’s this perfect poetic gem that only fantasy could give us. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles is a quest fantasy and a coming of age fantasy and all those good but standard things. There’s nothing external to distinguish this from a zillion other fantasy novels, but it knocked me over because of what Rothfuss is doing with it. There’s a frame story that strongly implies that the whole thing is a tragedy. With two volumes (of a planned three) out, it’s apparent that Rothfuss knows precisely what he’s doing and is setting everything up on purpose. We have enough of the frame and enough of the picture in the frame that we can see the shape of the rest of it in shadow, but we can’t be sure about anything except that Rothfuss is in control of his material. There’s an engaging first person unreliable narrator, there’s an interesting Renaissance-ish world with complex history, there are several systems of magic, some more “magical” than others, and there’s a sense of tragical inevitability hanging over everything that allows the protagonist to be more awesome than he might get away with in other circumstances. It’s fun and there’s a lot in it for those paying attention.

Daniel Abraham again—the Dagger and the Coin books. These are much more conventional fantasy, but they still got me excited because they have banking. How many fantasy novels can you think of with banking? None, because you think banking isn’t exciting... except that it is! My only complaint about these books is that there is proportionately too much ultimate evil and not enough banking in the later ones. But even so, they’re terrific and I’m reading them the second they come out.

Dzur Steven Brust’s Dzur is part of his Vlad Taltos series which he has been writing since the eighties. I’m only talking about new things that made me excited, and that shouldn’t be book ten or eleven of a series—but it wouldn’t be fair not to talk about Brust. This is a series that keeps on doing new and innovative things. Dzur probably does need the earlier books to make sense. But it isn’t like them. None of these books is really like the others. Dzur is a fantasy novel about having a really good meal in a wonderful restaurant. It brings back old characters and introduces new characters and advances the plot, and it will make you hungry. Brust just keeps on being amazing—Tiassa is also incredible and innovative. This isn’t a series where you can say “Here’s some more, I know what I’m getting.” This is a series that keeps doing new exciting things.

Roz Kaveney’s Rituals takes the idea of gods and monsters in the modern world and runs with it. It’s witty and sharp and well-observed and feminist and it pushes the “adorable blasphemy” genre in good directions. I am ridiculously fond of it. There’s a sequel coming soon and I am excited to read it. I love things that do intelligent things with history.

Yves Meynard’s Chrysanthe is in the tradition of Gene Wolfe and Roger Zelazny, and beyond that of Dunsany and Mirrlees. It also has modern sensibilities, and because Meynard is from a different culture—he’s an award-winning novelist in French—it’s distinctly different from most of what we see on the shelves labelled as fantasy. This is a quest through shadows that leads to unexpected places. So much fantasy uses magic in a logical way—I’ve called it “realist magicism.” Of everything I’ve mentioned here, only this and A Stranger in Olondria are doing anything that isn’t that. I like it to make sense, but I also like the incredible flowering of the imagination you get in things like Chrysanthe.

There are a whole lot more things I could mention, but I’ll keep it to eight and again ask you to add your own suggestions for fantasy novels that have excited you about the possibilities of the genre. The comments on the SF post were great—I love it when people are recommending things to each other that way. Let’s try that again!

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Well, crumbs, if there is anyone's advice I'm going to listen to, it is yours.
Rich Bennett
2. Neuralnet
wow, I have only read the Rothfuss on your list... I guess I really have a lot of summer reading to catch up on. I am having a hard time coming up with suggestions that started within the last ten years... it seems like all my favorites began long ago GRRM, Malazan, WoT etc.
3. sofrina
i'm not sure if it's sf or fantasy, but the time traveller's wife really moved me. the science is pretty spare and not remotely strong enough to keep me from arriving at a rather fantastical notion: someone outside of this world made a mistake creating henry and the limits of his travels were intentionally installed to try to give him some happiness as compensation.

and gregory maguire's "oz" books. wicked and son of a witch have become favorites. i wasn't so sure as wicked unfolded, but ultimately i found elphaba's story incredibly 'believable.' and liir's story, well i love an underdog coming into his own. it would be nice if maguire did a story on shell thropp, the emperor. not too long, but i'd like to understand more about his journey as the baby brother of the two great witches.
Chris Hawks
4. SaltManZ
@2: The Malazan series is less than 15 years old. Heck, it's only been available in the US since 2004.
Jeff Youngstrom
5. jeffy
Great list. I can give an enthusiastic second for the Abrahams and Brust. And thanks for the reminder of the Monette. I read the first book and got distracted before reading the rest of the cycle.

I'd add's own A.M. Dellamonica's Indigo Springs (and its sequel Blue Magic) which does interesting things with a non-standard magic system set in the modern world. Interesting conflicted characters and no ultimate evil.

Also Elizabeth Bear's "Edda of Burdens" trilogy which does that great thing of being fantasy that scratches some of my SF itches. Mythic, heroic, and tragic. Her "Eternal Sky" books are doing some nifty things in an Asiatic setting and the last book can't come out soon enough. Her collaborations with Sarah Monette, A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men (so far?) do wild things with companion animal stories.

There was also that book about the girl who read a lot of books and worked with fairies. What was that called again?
6. ck421
I second an interest in fantasy banking. My favorite parts of the Song of Ice and Fire books are the references to the Iron Bank of Braavos.
Brian R
7. Mayhem
Which books got me excited in the last 10 years? Now that's a fun list.
I had a lot I enjoyed, and a few long runners that I've bought sight unseen. But the ones that really got me to sit up and pay attention were in no particular order:
* Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora, which *really* scratched a particular itch I didn't even know I had.
* Peter V Brett's The Painted Man, whose initial world idea blew me away, though it's becoming a bit more traditional now.
* I'm going to cheat a bit and say the entire set of Jim Butcher's the Dresden Files, which I discovered around 2009 and utterly devoured over the course of a rather sleepless week, breathlessly wanting more.
* Rothfuss as mentioned above, who along with Steven Erikson is making a much more carefully planned and detailed style of Fantasy, which greatly rewards careful reading and rereading.
* Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven, which was utterly superb and tragic and everything I wanted but brought me to tears again and again. Any time he gets a new book out I get really excited. And then often sad. But in a good way.
Michal Jakuszewski
8. Lfex
I second The Long Price Quartet. On the epic side I would also name Prince of Nothing trilogy by R. Scott Bakker - controversial but very deep and unlike anything else out there, IMHO. Also Among Others and Tooth nad Claw by Jo, The Scar and The City and the City by china Mieville and, to complete the list Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell and The Orphan Tales by Catherynne Valente.
Marc Gioglio
9. Fuzzix
Anyone know when the Tyrant's Law (book 3 of Dagger and Coin) will be available as an audiobook? My wife and I loved the first two books, and are eagerly awaiting this instalment.
Claire de Trafford
10. Booksnhorses
Loved the Long Price Quartet but it has taken until book 3 (Tyrant's Law) of the Dagger and Coin for it to warm up for me, and I'm still only at enjoying, rather than adoring.

I had an opposite reaction with Brent Weeks. Hated his Nightangel stuff, but I love the Lightbringer series - 2 so far, The Black Prism and The Blinding Knife. 2 more books in this series to go. The magic is innovative and based around colour and colour perception, and there are some reasonably good and realistic female characters who do talk to each other.

This site recently put me onto Violette Malan and I'm reading my way through her Dhulyn and Parno books.

Finally I adored Kate Elliott's Crossroads series. A great, non medieval, non Western setting with non European peoples and an amazing storyline.
F Shelley
11. FSS
Thanks for this. I've doing a lot of re-reading lately. Just ordered A Shadow in Summer.
Andrew Barton
12. MadLogician
Another fantasy novel with banking: the Spice and Wolf series by Isuna Hasekura. The lead characters are a merchant and a goddess and much of the plot turns on economics.
Nancy Lebovitz
13. NancyLebovitz
I had a lot of fun with Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone-- complex invented world with litigation over the suspicious death of a god. Nice prose, third person (I've gotten tired of first person urban fantasy even though I still read it), a lot going on-- sometimes three plot lines paying off on a single page. A character who smokes (this turns out to be a plot point), transhumanist stuff about consent and identity, mentor relationships as central to the story....really not the usual.
18. JaneP
I really enjoyed Sarah Monette’s series - it still has that feel of something out of ordinary. Other books from the last decade that I love for their orginality and ability to take you somewhere else include P.C. Hodgell's Kencyr series which commenced in 1982 (it has been a long and agonising time between some of the books), Garth Nix's Old Kingdoms Trilogy, Ellen Kushner's Swordpoint series (again commenced in 1987), Megan Whalen Turner's Queen's Thief series (started 1996 but still going strong), Robin McKinley's Sunshine (I think it is fantasy rather than horror), Martha Wells' Fall of Ile -rien series and everything she has ever written and R.A MacAvoy's Lens of World series, which is 90s but out there in terms of unique fantasy.

No list would be complete without Caroline Stevermer's When the king comes home and all of Patricia McKillip's intricate fairy tales with Ombria in Shadow topping the list.

Ron Griggs
19. RonGriggs
"And they’re set fifteen years apart, so that the main character begins at fifteen, and is then thirty, forty-five and sixty in the other three volumes. I can’t think of anything else that does this."

Though it's not quite the same, the advancing ages of the main characters in the Earthsea stories is one of the elements I most appreciate about the consummate artistry of Ursula K. LeGuin.
p l
20. p-l
Jo, I would love to know what you think of The Etched City by K.J. Bishop. Besides Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, it was the book I was most surprised not to find on your list.
Jo Walton
21. bluejo
P-L -- I love Kelly Link, but this was "books" not "short stories". Short stories that made me excited about fantasy would be entirely different. Link. Klages. Swirsky. Goss. Hmm, could that be a post?

I'm afraid I couldn't finish The Etched City. It was too dark for me to be able to read. It was beautifully written, from what I could read of it.
p l
22. p-l
bluejo: Thanks for the response! By Magic for Beginners, I was referring to the entire collection, not just the story of that name.
23. Minion5051
I'm surprised no one has mentioned Sanderson. He's done more to get me back into Fantasy than anyone else.
Erica Collier
24. scifibard
The Raksura trilogy by Martha Wells. Her Ile Rien series was already incredibly impressive, following the progression of the world from 17th century-esque flintlock era (with mages and faeries of course) to gaslight with a Holmsian feel (with necromancers) to a WWI feel culmination (with attackers from another world) all with multiple magic systems plus a progression of science, and the final trilogy introduces other worlds with yet more systems...and it all worked seamlessly with fantastic characters, some of my favorite snarky women of all literature, and a great flare for storytelling in general. But the Raksura trilogy was far more breathtakingly original. She paints a vibrant world teeming with life and variety beyond what any other fantasy author I can think of has brought. It it is utterly itself in a way that shows up how very derrivitive so much of the fantasy genre has become. It is by far the best narrative about non-humans I have ever read (and yes, there are a number of good ones out there) and achingly poingant at times. Working with a different species (well, several, but the focus is on the Raksura), she is able, among other things, to subvert gender expectations though not with anything so straightforward as a reversal. She also gets to play with the tensions between instinct and reason and emotion in wonderfully defamiliarized ways.

Also Kate Elliott has a delightfully fresh fantasy adventure in her Cold Magic series with the magic well embedded in the world of this deeply-alternate history Napoleaonic era tale...with swordplay, revolution, needlepont, cold mages, the faerie-like world and its Hunt, the dreaded salt plague, and, of course, conversations over tea with the intelligent descendants of dinosaurs. I'm quite sure there was tea anyway.

And yes, I'd agree that Sanderson is doing fascinating things. And I can't wait (and yet almost dread) the release of Rothfuss' final book in the Kingkiller trilogy.
25. Elaine Gallagher
I loved The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern; an unusual setting, very atmospheric, the magic consistent in service to the atmosphere and the story rather than according to some mechanical scheme. Also Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes; once again with consistent but unusual magic, very tightly integrated into a modern world setting and the fantasy used to examine modern concerns of racism and ghettoisation.
26. stew
Slight quibble: Terry Pratchett has banking. And pretty fabulous banking.

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