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.
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.
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.