In this ongoing series, we ask SF/F authors to recommend five books based around a common theme. These lists aren’t intended to be exhaustive, so we hope you’ll discuss and add your own suggestions in the comments!
Stories are about people. When you get to the heart of what makes a compelling narrative, the only thing that ever really makes a story resonate is fascinating characters. Watership Down? Rabbits that are people. Temeraire? A dragon that’s really a person. Basin and Range? Rocks that are… well, people. A novel with complex and believable characters and a wooden plot is a great book. A plot heavy book with wooden characters isn’t worth your time. We’re pack animals. This is why reality TV is so incredibly popular, because the noisome wretches on Jersey Shore or Duck Dynasty are PEOPLE, and we want to know what becomes of them, for good or ill.
And here’s the thing about people: they aren’t perfect. People make mistakes, frequent and horrendous mistakes. We screw up early and often and horribly. The best protagonists in all genres, fantasy included, are equally flawed, not so horribly that we want to see them burn, but enough so that we see our own errors reflected in theirs. Because if our favorite fantasy characters can fall so far and find redemption, then maybe we can too.
Here’s my top five fantasy novels with deeply-flawed, nasty, rotten, mean, horrid, and downright fascinating protagonists (in cases of series, I provide the title of the first novel):
Arlen Bales, from The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett
Arlen is your quintessential superpowered hero. He wields long lost magic for the sake of all humankind, pushing back against demons that would see civilization destroyed. But Arlen wields the power at an incredible price: his humanity. His powers put him forever outside the human race he seeks to serve.
Like Doctor Manhattan from Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, Arlen’s struggles to remain connected to the world he’s sworn to defend makes this story live.
The Warden, from Low Town by Daniel Polansky
The Warden is a mid-level criminal boss, running drugs, prostitution and theft rackets in the worst neighborhoods of his city. He’s a thief, a murderer, a pusher and a lowlife of the worst kind. But he also runs a bar with his best friend, reluctantly fosters a runaway, and still finds time to save the world.
The Warden dreams of being something more than just a thug, while still embracing the tools of his dark trade. The conflict between ends and means make the character and the book.
Jorg Ancrath, from Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Jorg Ancrath has suffered as few of us do. He is held captive in a patch of hookbriar and forced to watch those dearest to him slaughtered. His quest for revenge will resonate with every reader’s sense of justice, but the means by which obtains it may well make you shudder.
Sand Dan Glokta, from The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Glokta is an inquisitor, a professional torturer in the service of his state. A victim of torture himself, he is horribly mutilated, permanently scarred both inside and out. But Glokta is still looking to do something more than pay the world back for how he has suffered, and his quest to his suffering matter will keep you turning the pages.
Locke Lamora, from The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Locke Lamora is inevitably the smartest man in any given room. Unfortunately, he knows it, and puts it to use in the service of the Crooked Warden, the God of Thieves.
There’s no con too long for Lamora’s cunning, and many is the purse lightened due to his deceit. But he also proves the old adage wrong. There is honor among thieves, and seeing how Locke’s personal code pits him against the dictates of his profession really makes Lynch’s work shine.