Ok, so following on from my personal top 10 must read fantasy novels, written 5 years ago, I’ve sort of succeeded and sort of failed in updating the list for 2012. My new list sees some of the original list’s titles forgotten, while some new entries blast their way in. Where I fail is in putting these in any sort of order – it was relatively straightforward to draw up the shortlist in the end, but ranking them would take far too much deliberation and far too many headaches.
Actually, when I say it was relatively easy to draw up the shortlist, I forgot to mention one thing: I’ve taken the Spinal Tap approach to list building – this list goes up to 11. Given the afore-mentioned struggle in ranking these titles, I’ve gone for alphabetical order instead, and so we begin with number 4 from my original list:
The Dark Elf Trilogy – R. A. Salvatore
This is a case of starting at the beginning, chronologically speaking, and also an introduction to one of fantasy’s great heroes – Drizzt Do’Urden. I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons, and I’ve not had much interaction with any of the Forgotten Realms products, excluding Salvatore’s works. This isn’t a disadvantage though there’s no prior knowledge required of the world and the creatures within. This trilogy (Homeland, Exile, Sojourn) gives a fantastic backstory to Drizzt that makes you just want to continue with the series and follow his ongoing adventures.
Dwarves – Markus Heitz
I picked up this beast of a book about a year ago and I instantly loved it. I’m a big fan of maps at the beginning of fantasy novels and this one was a bit of a letdown for me, but that’s where the disappointment ends. The story of Tungdil and his friends is a proper hero’s journey with characters you can love. There’s excitement throughout and a good amount of humour and feeling to really draw you in. The addition of three further instalments of similar size is also very welcome.
Empire in Black and Gold – Adrian Tchaikovsky
This book being on my list is probably the choice that would surprise the old me the most. When I read fantasy, I want proper fantasy. If I pick up a book whilst shopping and I see anything in the blurb relating to guns, planes, real world locations etc, I immediately put the book back on the shelf, no exceptions. I started reading Empire and got into it pretty much right away. Then came the introduction of modern advances in technology. We have guns snapbows, planes and trains and yet the way they’re developed makes them somehow acceptable to me. I even loved the references later in the series to releasing a parachute to wind up the clockwork mechanism in a plane while in flight.
This aside then, I love the Shadows of the Apt series because there’s so much variation and surprise everywhere you look. This is no typical fantasy, this is a world full of rich species of insect-kinden, giving our characters interesting abilities of flight, wall climbing, night vision and more. Such a simple concept but so well developed and delivered.
The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson
Sanderson could easily have several books in my top list if I wasn’t sticking to one entry per author. I just love the way this guy can write several series or standalone books each with their own completely different magic systems and yet they’re all brilliant and seem almost plausible somehow. I chose this first book of the Mistborn for my list as I think it just pips the others as my personal favourite as well as being the first of Sanderson I read outside of the Wheel of Time. I really enjoyed both the story and the characters here, but the one thing that really made it for me was the magic of allomancy. The way these powers are explained allows you to know what the characters are capable of and it adds another level to the enjoyment when you can plot escape routes or attack strategies based on this knowledge.
A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
Undoubtedly owing some of its current popularity to the excellent TV series, A Game of Thrones, and its fellows in the Song of Ice and Fire series, is a deep and involving story of a kingdom at war. The story is highly engrossing, which is just as well considering the wait between instalments and the author’s predilection for killing off your favourite characters at every turn…
Legend – David Gemmell
Once again this is a “gateway” novel, an introduction to a series of truly excellent reads. It’s also an introduction to the great hero that is Druss, a man with the ability to inspire an army like no other hero I can recall meeting in all my years of reading fantasy fiction.
Magician – Raymond E. Feist
This is probably where my passion for fantasy fiction really began, with the Riftwar and Serpentwar series from Feist. I’d probably rate the Serpentwar as my personal favourite, but in keeping with the “must-have books” theme, I once more go with the beginning of the story, which takes us back to Magician. I love all the Midkemia books and the number of them means that it’s possible to lose yourself in Feist’s world for a good long time, but also that the world itself has had plenty of time to develop and mature over the years. Despite not actually liking Pug all that much (particularly the name), I still rate this as one of the very best fantasy novels I’ve read.
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss
When talking of single books rather than a full series, Pat Rothfuss delivers exactly the sort of thing I love – a big doorstop that gives the arms a work out trying to keep it above the bubbles when reading in the bath. The tale of Kvothe is so engrossing you can read the whole thing in the time it takes to read a novel half the length. It’s a refreshing story that I think is in equal parts the least exciting and also one of the most exciting books on my list. How’s that possible? Well, thinking back on it, I can say there’s big sections where nothing much happens – ok there’s LOTS of things that might happen but nothing really BIG, yet the way it’s written makes the Name of the Wind so hard to put down. It’s refreshing to have a fantastic novel that tells such an amazing tale without having to rely on big set pieces or cataclysms to provide that big page-turning bang.
New Spring – Robert Jordan
Another behemoth of a series, the Wheel of Time takes up an entire shelf on my bookcase, which is wonderful for those who like to really sink their teeth into a story. I chose New Spring on my original list as an introduction to the full Wheel of Time series and it makes a return on my updated list for the same reason. Personally, I struggled to get into The Eye of the World at first and various other points throughout the series also proved a bit tedious. New Spring offers no such problems, but what it does give is a great prologue to the series, introducing two central characters and providing good backstory as well as an insight into the workings of this fantasy world.
The Painted Man – Peter V. Brett
The story of Arlen has been one of the great fantasy surprises of the last few years for me. It’s so rewarding to pick up a book by a new author and completely fall in love with it. With The Painted Man (The Warded Man in the States), I was hooked from the start and have remained hooked since. The first time we meet the Corelings was particularly special as I just had no idea what to expect and the tension was excellently handled. I think any fan of fantasy will love following along as Arlen develops his skills and develops himself into a powerful weapon against the dark.
The Way of Shadows – Brent Weeks
The only book on my list that I don’t actually own myself, this was a rare borrow from my best friend, who normally treats me as his personal lending library rather than the other way around. I think in time I may replace the Way of Shadows on this list with The Black Prism, and both present good arguments for inclusion. Overall though, I think the excitement of the Night Angel trilogy, and the twists and turns it delivers, is enough to merit its inclusion as well as providing a perfect introduction to the follow up works of the author.
Honourable mentions: Other than those titles falling off the list over the last 5 years, mentions go to The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas and the Redemption of Althalus by David and Leigh Eddings.