Back in 2007 I saw a competition at Waterstones UK to win 12 Wheel Of Time paperbacks (the 11 released to that point, plus New Spring). The task was to list my top 10 “must have” fantasy novels, along with reasons for choosing each title, in less than 1,000 words total.
Seeing lists of “Most Anticipated Fantasy Novels of 2013” and “Top Ten Fantasy Novels of 2012” et cetera got me to thinking how my top 10 list would look 5 years down the line. Heck, I just tried to name the original 10 and failed because 3 of the books on the list, I wasn’t sure I’d have included back then. The problem now is that there’s a fantastic batch of current authors who are breathing new life into the genre. Choosing 10 now isn’t as easy a task as it was even 5 years ago when I hadn’t come across the works of Sanderson, Rothfuss, Brett, Weeks, Tchaikovsky and others. Nevertheless, I’m going to give it a go, albeit with my own rules applied.
First though, is the original list I made in 2003, which won that Waterstones competition:
10 Green Rider – Kristen Britain
In a genre historically dominated by male authors, Kristen Britain jumps out from seemingly nowhere with the first tale of the messenger, Karigan. It’s refreshing to find a fantasy novel so well put together and easy to read, and Karigan is the perfect heroine for this action packed debut.
9 Blue Moon Rising – Simon R Green
Barring Tolkien’s masterpieces, I think this was the first fantasy novel I ever read. Hence, I suppose Blue Moon Rising takes a place in my top ten for somewhat sentimental reasons, and although it may seem a little out of place alongside such legendary titles and authors, for me it is no less a page-turner. Boasting more outright humour than most “heroic” fantasy novels, it sits somewhat tongue in cheek in my top ten, purposefully blending practically every fantasy stereotype into a seriously good read.
8 Bodyguard of Lightning – Stan Nicholls
For me, Bodyguard of Lightning, and the subsequent Orc novels, stand out for two main reasons. Firstly, the main characters, as a race, are amongst the most under-represented heroes of the genre. Secondly, the story is so engrossing you’ll barely notice the pages turning as you delve deeper and deeper into this masterpiece.
7 New Spring – Robert Jordan
It’s no coincidence that my entire top ten is made up of novels that form part of a series, and Jordan lays claim to one of the biggest. Although New Spring was written towards the end of the Wheel of Time series, it is set before the events in the series, and so is a good stepping stone to the world of Rand, Mat, Perrin and company. Telling the story of how Moiraine and Lan met, New Spring is a much shorter read than the following novels, but gives much insight into the world, its peoples and its magic.
6 The Hobbit – J R R Tolkien
Of all the novels making my top list, The Hobbit is the oldest and probably the most universally loved. For me, it was an introduction to new worlds, a tale that eclipsed its big brother sequel in everything but sheer physical size. Much easier to get to grips with than The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is an endearing tale of adventure and friendship. It’s almost what I imagine you’d get if you chopped the Lord of the Rings into more manageable proportions, crammed all the action into those reduced pages and threw in a dragon for good measure. Although it would be a given for anyone wishing to follow events chronologically, I’d certainly recommend reading The Hobbit first, and The Lord of the Rings if that leaves you with enough energy.
5 Dawnthief – James Barclay
Dawnthief was possibly one of the best debut novels I’ve picked up in recent years, and spells great things to come for the fantasy genre. Taking the reader on a thrill-ride the likes of which can only be provided by an elite mercenary group, Barclay creates a perfect balance between sword and sorcery. The characters are likeable and believable, and the story grabs hold of you, not letting you go until the cataclysmic end that leaves you scrabbling frantically for the next book in the series.
4 The Dark Elf Trilogy – R A Salvatore
Ok, so maybe I’m cheating a little here by listing a trilogy, but the story of Drizzt Do’Urden deserves its place and more than most other series, is perhaps more often seen as the omnibus edition. Along with one of fantasy’s most popular heroes, Salvatore provides us with one of the best examples of world building I’ve ever come across. Set in the Dungeons & Dragons-based Forgotten Realms, there are many areas that D&D fans will be familiar with – most notably the various monsters we come across, but knowledge of the D&D precepts are by no means a prerequisite to reading and enjoying the series. To me, above any of the other entrants on my top list, The Dark Elf Trilogy is a great example of a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
3 A Game of Thrones – George R R Martin
Although there isn’t a huge amount of magic in Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, this opening novel will remain a favourite for a long time. Taking more of a political stance than some, as the title perhaps suggests, this novel is brutal, gritty and downright awesome. The sheer scope of the characters and the lands it encompasses make A Game of Thrones a goliath of the genre, and rarely are we presented with such in depth visions of the characters we follow. The story is gripping and vivid, backed up by characters and a world that you really can believe in.
2 Legend – David Gemmell
The recently departed Gemmell is often referred to as the greatest writer of heroic fantasy, and his debut novel was so well received that Random House renamed their SF and Fantasy list as “Legend.” Featuring another of the genre’s greatest heroes – Druss the Legend – we are treated to a tale of immense bravery and strength of character, in a seemingly hopeless situation akin to the memorable defence of Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s screen marvel.
1 Magician – Raymond E Feist
Feist introduces the first of several Midkemia series with quite possibly the finest novel of the fantasy genre. The story focuses on Pug and Tomas, and by introducing them at such a young age, we are able to follow their lives as they develop into the great sorcerer and warrior respectively. A finely crafted world is revisited many times in the subsequent novels, meaning that once you’ve done with the first house brick, there’s plenty more to sink your teeth into. Simply put, Magician will leave you spellbound for a long time to come.