TOP 10 FANTASY BOOKS (REVISED 2018)
To commemorate my new index page for Fantasy & SF in my Top Tens of Everything, I’ve revised my Top 10 Fantasy Books to include two new entries. (The other lists for Fantasy & SF have remained essentially the same, which some minor re-shuffling of entries).
One of the two two new entries, Welcome to Night Vale, was formerly in my Top 10 Fantasy & SF Books – Stories & Works, because it is predominantly a podcast – but I’ve transferred it to my Top 10 Fantasy Books because 2017 saw a second novel, It Devours, added to the Welcome to Night Vale universe. (I’ve promoted Joe Landsale from my honorable mentions to replace it in my Top 10 Fantasy & SF Books – Stories & Works).
The second entry is for a new entry entirely, The Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.
To make room for these new entries, I’ve transferred Christopher Moore to my honorable mentions and Simon R. Green to my special mention cult and pulp entries.
Anyway, these are my top ten favorite books as revised for 2018 – the fantasy books that changed or shaped the way I see the world or my personal mythos.
(10) LEV GROSSMAN – THE MAGICIANS TRILOGY (2009 – 2014)
In a nutshell, The Magicians combines a dark adult version of Harry Potter with a dark adult version of Narnia.
As a fan of fantasy, I have a secret – I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay. Which is to say it just pales in comparison to other fantasy.
The Magicians offers a more intriguing comparison – as I said, it combines a dark adult version Hogwarts in its Brakebills University with a dark adult version of Narnia in its Fillory.
I came to The Magicians trilogy through the TV series, which adapts Lev Grossman’s trilogy, albeit in somewhat different but equally interesting directions. Protagonist Quentin Coldwater enrolls at Brakebills University for Magical Pedagogy to be trained as one of the titular Magicians, where he discovers that magic is real – and after graduation finds that the magical world from his favorite childhood books is also real.
In The Magicians, magic is dangerous. And it costs, usually in sacrifice or profound loss. That’s whether it’s the curriculum of spells in Brakebills University or other sources of magic elsewhere.
To paraphrase Hemingway, magic tends to break everyone (although most of the magicians are somewhat broken in the first place) – but those that will not break, it kills.
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(9) ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY – SHADOWS OF THE APT (2008 – 2014)
Damn you, Adrian Tchaikovsky!
I have always been fascinated by insects, so accordingly one of my (unwritten) story ideas involved high fantasy with insect-people. They were essentially human, but with the skin or hair coloring of their insect species, as well as other physical attributes that did not radically alter their otherwise human appearance – wings for example (in the style of the butterfly or other insect wings occasionally depicted on fairies), perhaps antennae and so on. I imagined the insect-people as essentially divided up into realms according to the three great species of social insects – bees, ants and wasps, although there would be different realms of each (corresponding to different sub-species or types). Each of these realms would also include other thematically similar insect-peoples – for example, bee-kingdoms (or more precisely, bee-queendoms) would include other pollinating insects, such as butterflies. As for antagonists, one was spoilt for choice – flies or locusts as marauding hordes (the Locust Horde!), various parasitic insects (fleas, mosquitoes and so on) as blood-sucking bandits or brigands, arachnids such as spiders or scorpions as monstrous figures. However, I imagined the most dangerous and recurring antagonists as the fourth great species of social insects – termites.
In fairness, I didn’t get much beyond imagining the various insect-people societies, although I did imagine my main protagonist as a mantis warrior.
And then I found Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, which effectively does just that – a high fantasy set in a world of insect-‘kinden’, humans who have adopted some of the characteristics of their insect-types (or arachnid-types) through their magical Art from the dangerous and giant fantasy insects (or arachnids) of this world. Ant and beetle kinden dominate the so-called Lowlands (not surprisingly, given the sheer prevalence of those insect species in our world). Even more intriguingly, it is a world in which magic is being replaced by science – an industrial revolution by the technologically Apt peoples of the title, matched by a political revolution, in which the more mundane but Apt ants and beetles have ousted the more magically-minded moths and mantises (although mantis warriors are still legendary). However, the antagonists are not termites, but the growing and ruthless Wasp Empire. Of course, Tchaikovsky is a little too fond of spiders for my liking – a fondness that extends across his works, not just the spider-kinden in this series.
So – damn you, Adrian Tchaikovsky, for conceiving and executing your story idea first, in an epic series. It’s not quite how I imagined my story idea, but it’s close enough that I love it anyway.
RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(8) GARTH NIX – THE KEYS TO THE KINGDOM (2003 – 2010)
As I previously confessed my fantasy fan secret, I don’t particularly like Harry Potter. I don’t particularly dislike it either. It’s…okay.
It’s just that it pales in comparison to some of the other children’s or young adult fantasy out there, some of which are wild rides indeed. My favorite is that by Australian writer Garth Nix (a name made for fantasy!) – whose works make Hogwarts look like, well, any other old English boarding school.
There is his Old Kingdom or Abhorsen series – and this would certainly be the place to start for those looking for similarities to Harry Potter. Its primary setting is divided between the scientific nation of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom, a mysterious realm of magic, particularly necromancy, although the highest necromancer in the kingdom is the Abhorsen, its guardian – “”I am a necromancer, but not of the common kind. Where others of the art raise the Dead, I lay them back to rest. And those that will not rest, I bind. Or try to. I am Abhorsen.” Of course, that’s easier said than done…
I, however, prefer his cosmic trip, the seven-book Keys to the Kingdom series (a series somewhat similar in concept to one of my favorite webcomics, Kill Six Billion Demons). In it, Creation is coming undone – not just the universe, but the entire multiverse, is slowly falling apart into Nothing in the absence of its Creator, the Architect. The primary setting or axis mundi of the multiverse, the cosmic structure called The House, itself divided up into seven domains (akin to worlds) by its seven most powerful denizens (in the absence of the Architect, of course), the Morrow Days. This is essentially the root of the cosmic decay – those seven beings elected not to appoint a mortal from the so-called Secondary Realms as the Rightful Heir in accordance with the Will of the Architect, but instead to break up and imprison the Will into seven parts, keeping power for themselves in the titular Keys to the Kingdom.
However, the Will has, ah, a will of its own and part of it escapes, tricking the lowest Morrow Day into handing over part of his key to a mortal Rightful Heir, the aptly named Arthur Penhaglion. And so Arthur, faced firstly with his own destruction (by the Morrow Day seeking to reclaim the key) and subsequently with the fate of the multiverse itself, finds himself with no choice but to ascend the House to reclaim the Will and the Keys to the Kingdom, successively fighting each Morrow Day (each embodying one of the Seven Deadly Sins) as reflected by the titles of the books – Mister Monday, Grim Tuesday, Drowned Wednesday, Sir Thursday, Lady Friday, Superior Saturday and Lord Sunday. Fortunately, Arthur does find allies within the denizens of the House. including one of my favorite female fantasy characters, Suzy Turquoise Blue, as well as other free agents within the House such as the Mariner and the Piper – all the while being slowly transformed by the House into a cosmic being himself…
RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(7) WILLIAM BROWNING SPENCER – RESUME WITH MONSTERS (1995)
Great Cthulhu in a cubicle!
For this entry, we move to light fantasy evocation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. (Lovecraft himself does not rank in my top ten fantasy books, instead ranking as an iconic special mention – but his Mythos will recur throughout my various top tens, as other writers use it).
William Browning Spencer is an undeservedly overlooked writer, notwithstanding a name worthy of a romantic poet. He delightfully combines a playful comedic style and observational humor to fantasy themes. This is particularly so in this entry (and winner of the International Horror Critics Guild Award for Best Novel in 1995), Resume with Monsters, which combines the Cthulhu Mythos with satire of the corporate cubicle drone workplace. It has a special resonance for those, like myself, who have always suspected a connection – nay unholy collusion! – between the soul-destroying corporate workplace and the soul-destroying dark entities of the Cthulhu Mythos.
In Resume with Monsters, Philip Kenan may not be the most reliable narrator of his experience as a worker in dead-end office cubicle drone jobs – between bouts of therapy and his unrequited quest to win back his ex-girlfriend Amelia, although he saved her (and quite possibly the world) from some…thing at their mutual previous employment (narrated as the Doom That Came to MicroMeg). Now he is routinely alert to signs of otherworldly incursions at his workplace, “signs of Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth or his dread messenger Nylarlathotep – checking bathrooms for “hideous, disorientating graffiti from mad Alhrazed’s Necronomicon” evoking those entities. And he is particularly alert to signs of altered states in his fellow employees, obvious signs that they had been changed into crypto-zombies, tools of management to open our world up to otherworldly invasion.
A model employee
Or perhaps he is simply lapsing into mental breakdown or outright insanity, symptoms of his obsession with H.P.Lovecraft’s “monsters”, as both his therapist and his ex-girlfriend term them – his therapist noting that Lovecraft “was not in the pink of mental health”. An obsession that was born of his father’s own obsessive narration to him of the stories of Lovecraft, identifying it with the ‘System’ – “Don’t let the System eat your soul”. An obsession that Philip Kenan tries to keep at bay by the equally obsessive emotional talisman of his own Lovecraftian novel, “The Despicable Quest”, which he has been constantly rewriting over twenty years until it has swollen to two thousand pages.
Or perhaps both. Perhaps this madness is what allows him to see the things beyond this world but which still hunger for it – or it is a product of seeing things that the mind was never meant to see (or again perhaps both). As Kenan himself ruefully observes – “in the meantime, of course, he would have to hang on to his own reason…once you have gazed on the baleful visage of Yog-Sothoth, your own thoughts are forever suspect”…
As I said, this novel had a special resonance for me from my own experience as a corporate cubicle drone, where I suspected that the mind-numbingly boring files simply could not exist for their own purpose but had to have a more substantial and sinister purpose in inducing a receptive state or lack of resistance to otherworldly invasion. After all, the business partners milked us for everything else – why not our very souls? Of course, I was too smart for them, as I simply didn’t do my files…
The face of evil – “Um, yeah, I’m going to need you to work Sunday as well as Saturday”
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS***
(6) JAMES MORROW – GODHEAD TRILOGY (1994 – 1999)
James Morrow is a writer of religious and philosophical satire clothed in absurdist Vonnegutian fantasy – particularly of the abstract philosophical or religious concept made flesh in the form of absurdist fantasy (and indeed as the source of much of the absurdism in that fantasy). This is never more so than in his Godhead trilogy, where he takes the Nietzschean theme that God is dead and makes it flesh, literally in the form of a two mile long corpse – or Corpus Dei – in the Atlantic Ocean.
This is the premise of the trilogy as a whole – and the opening of the first novel, Towing Jehovah. “God is dead” say the archangels, dying themselves of terminal empathy with their Creator, as they charge a chosen few with one last divine mission (with feathers from their glowing wings as tokens) – “died and fell into the sea”. The Vatican charges Captain Anthony Van Horne to tow the Corpus Dei with a supertanker to the Arctic Circle, to preserve it from decomposition, for possible resuscitation or at least for time to ponder the problems of the Deity’s death (not least the theological question posed by the Deity’s death). Captain Van Horne sees it as his opportunity for redemption from his responsibility for the world’s largest oil spill, his dreams haunted by hordes of oil-soaked animals – and he has his work cut out for him, as sabotage and perils, natural and spiritual, threaten the tight timeline calculated by the Vatican supercomputer to avoid irreversible brain deterioration for the Corpus Dei. It was nominated for a number of awards (including Hugo and Nebula) – and won the 1995 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
However, my favorite is the second of the trilogy, Blameless in Abaddon, where theodicy is made flesh – theodicy being the theological study of the problem of evil, “reconciling God’s goodness with the world’s evil”, or at least explaining His apparent indifference to suffering. In the manner of the biblical Book of Job, small town and small time magistrate Martin Candle – widowed and afflicted with prostate cancer – seeks to have the Corpus Dei towed to the World Court and prosecuted for the problem of evil or suffering of the world. (The trial itself is funded by G.F.Lovett, a children’s book author based on C.S.Lewis – on the condition that Candle prosecutes it and Lovett argues the defence). The trial itself is preceded by Candle exploring the original form of Creation in God’s mind (or spelunking the infinite), where everything exists in its ideal Form – God, it seems, was a Platonist – including, touchingly, the ideal Form of Candle’s deceased wife (and for that matter, himself). And of course, this novel of the problem of evil is narrated by none other than Satan, resident in God’s mind.
In the third book, The Eternal Footman, the last remnant of the Corpus Dei, God’s grinning skull or Cranium Dei, is in geosynchronous orbit over Times Square. Western civilization is collapsing as a plague of ‘death awareness’ overtakes it in the aftermath of God’s death – its victims are considered ‘Nietzsche positive’ with the first appearance of their ‘fetch’, their dark supernatural double that is also the literal embodiment of their death at a time of the fetch’s choosing. Nora Burkhart sets out to save her only son from his fetch in a picaresque quest across the United States in the throes of a death plague, not unlike Europe during the Black Plague – ultimately to a new religion in Mexico that offers deliverance. Or does it?
By this trilogy, Morrow has added himself to the ranks of the great fantasy satirists, while retaining a genuine sense of the beauty and sorrow of the world.
RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 4 STARS*****
(5) JOSEPH FINK & JEFFREY CRANOR – WELCOME TO NIGHT VALE (2012 – PRESENT)
“A friendly desert community, where the Sun is hot, the Moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.”
Welcome to Night Vale is a surreal humor or horror podcast styled as a community radio broadcaster in an American desert town and has been ongoing since 2012 – although my familiarity with it is more from the novels by creators Fink and Cranor, which served as my introduction to the Night Vale setting.
The creators conceived of Night Vale as a desert town where all conspiracy theories are real – as well as other urban myths and other surreal fantasies. And so Night Vale is an eldritch location, a Fantasy and Conspiracy Kitchen Sink setting, where the laws of time and space and nature in general don’t apply, or at apply only spasmodically. The citizens of Night Value simply roll with it, accepting surreal fantasy side by side with mundane reality.
The show has been described as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King” – or perhaps the Illuminatus Trilogy and the Invisibles filtered through H.P. Lovecraft and crammed into one desert town. Or the surreal dream logic of David Lynch on crack or in acid flashback (or both). The focus of the podcast is the Night Vale radio station, narrated in deadpan fashion by its host Cecil Palmer (as assisted by the Voice of Night Vale’s notoriously short-lived interns).
Cecil’s broadcasts are peppered throughout the 2015 debut novel Welcome to Night Vale as intermissions, but the main characters of the novel’s narrative are apparently minor, even trivial, characters from the podcast – Jackie, the perpetually nineteen-year old owner of Night Vale’s mystical pawnshop, and Diane, treasurer of the town’s PTA. The plot is driven by their quests to solve intertwined mysteries. Jackie’s pawnshop routine is disrupted when the mysterious Man in the Tan Jacket hands her a piece of paper marked KING CITY – unfortunately, this piece of paper is indestructible (and indeed constantly returns to her hand) and has a tendency to overwhelm other thoughts (when it is not audibly announcing its own contents). Diane’s shape-changing son Josh wants to know more about his missing father, which is complicated as Diane is now seeing him everywhere, while she investigates her own missing co-worker whom no one else remembers.
And if the plot wasn’t surreal enough, it takes us through the geography and population of Night Vale from the podcast – the Sheriff’s Secret Police along with all the other government surveillance agencies and spy satellites, Old Woman Josie surrounded by angelic beings all named Erika (and whom it is forbidden by law to acknowledge as angels), the Glow Cloud (all hail the Glow Cloud!) and plastic pink flamingos that warp time and space.
And then you have the really dangerous entities and eldritch abominations – the car salesman loping like wolves through their yards, the mysterious hooded figures in the town’s forbidden dog park, the City Council (in the council building draped nightly in black velvet) and worst of all, the Library and its most dangerous part, the fiction section filled with lies…
“As they ducked and ran down a parallel aisle, Diane saw, through the gaps between the books, the librarian emerge from the shadows. She saw, exactly and in full, what a librarian looked like. Her stomach lurched. She would not forget the sight, recurring in dreams and panic attacks, until the moment she died, at which point she would forget it. Eventually, on the day she finally died, one of the things that ran through her mind was: Well, at least I won’t have to remember that anymore. It made her happy and she died smiling. But that was much later.”
RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****
(4) RICHARD KADREY – SANDMAN SLIM (2009 – 2017)
How could I resist a hero – or anti-hero named Stark? No simple revenant clawing his way out of the grave – James Stark or the eponymous Sandman Slim of the series by Richard Kadrey, is a revenant who claws his way like a badass out of hell. The first book (and series) had me at hell – I have a soft spot for heroes back from the dead, or even better, gone to hell and back. Stark is a naturally talented magician (not wizard, because wizarding is for wimps like Harry Potter) in the secret magical underworld of Los Angeles and falls afoul of one of his colleagues, who sends him straight to hell.
Stark survives the literal gladiatorial arena of the abyss and rises to serve as hitman for the demon lord Azazel in the infernal internecine power struggles, before stealing the keys to the universe to return to our world (after eleven years in hell) for revenge on those who dealt out his damnation and his girlfriend’s death. And that’s just where the first book starts!
The other books in the series up the ante even more – Stark faces vampires and a zombie apocalypse (while serving as Lucifer’s bodyguard when Lucifer comes to Los Angeles to film his life story) in the second book (Kill the Dead), before going back to hell (which of course resembles Los Angeles, although there’s a magical reason for it) because a former mortal enemy has staged an infernal coup d’état in the third book (Aloha from Hell), and…well, you get the idea. Anything more would spoil the deliciously deviled fun!
The series might well be described as dark fantasy noir (or in the occult detective school), sharply written with an engaging cast of characters, not least Sandman Slim himself (whom I can’t help but picture as author Richard Kadrey) – Harry Dresden on steroids (or in the words of TV Tropes, Harry Dresden minus any sense of morality and on permanent god mode – wait, what’s higher than god mode?). If you read contemporary fantasy, you must read Sandman Slim. Where in hell is the movie – or at least the television series?…
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****
(3) STEPHEN KING – IT (1986)
You didn’t think I was going to have a top 10 fantasy books without the King, did you? Of course not.
Hail to the King! Stephen King, that is. Stephen King needs no introduction – he is one of the most iconic and prolific writers of our time. Lines and scenes from his work reverberate throughout popular culture, albeit particularly driven by cinematic or screen adaptations. His prose is vivid and visceral – indeed, the only books that have given me bad dreams, something which generally only occurs from the direct visualization of movies. In short, I am that Constant Reader to which King addresses his Author’s Notes.
But which Stephen King book to choose? I could so readily (and will) compile a top ten (or more) just of King. Arguably, he shows his finest craft of story or narrative in his shorter novels. In these, the narrative is kept taut and tight by the shorter length, which is why they have tended to be the best screen adaptations. Let’s not forget King’s shorter fiction, even more taut and tight than his novels, but which ironically tends to be too short to sustain cinematic adaptations (with notable exceptions such as “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). I’ve been a fan of King’s short stories from my original trifecta of “The Mangler”, “Gray Matter” and “The Boogeyman” in his Night Shift collection through all his varied stories, including those under King’s own pseudonym of Richard Bachman (which inspired The Dark Half), such as personal favorite “The Long Walk” (as well as the novel Thinner).
However, it is King’s longer work that has the more truly mythic impact, as it tends to have its own individual mythos, as well as being fundamental building blocks of the overarching mythos throughout King’s work, the Kingverse as it were, with its focus on Maine. But which longer work? There’s his Dark Tower series, which King considered his magnum opus – his Weird West multiverse of fantasy, horror and science fiction. Yet as much as I enjoyed being part of King’s ka-tet through its seven progressively larger volumes, the narrative extended too wide (including into his other books in an act of canon welding to rival Michael Moorcock, and for that matter to include himself in it), and it fell apart somewhat anticlimactically at the end (although I didn’t mind the ending for which he apologized in the book itself as it seemed apt).
Ultimately however, if there is a book that not only has its own individual mythos and is an important part of King’s overarching mythos, but also encapsulates and symbolizes King’s mythology in itself, it is, well, It. It traces its shapeshifting eldritch entity of evil in its favorite shape of Pennywise the Clown, as well as its lair and hunting ground, the town of Derry in Maine, and its opponents, the Losers’ Club through multiple and overlapping layers (even if it has some narrative missteps – and if you’ve read It, you know which particular scene looms largest in this respect). As the saying goes, you don’t know how deep It goes – but then, you’ll all float down here…
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****
(2) NEIL GAIMAN – AMERICAN GODS (2001)
Neil Gaiman may simply be the greatest living writer of fantasy, the literary (and suitably English) heir to J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis (both of whom were substantial influences on him). He may not be as iconic or prolific (or cinematic) as Stephen King, but the King himself has praised Gaiman as “a treasure house of story” and added that “we are lucky to have him in any medium”. And indeed we are. He is the fantasy writer that I would recommend to non-fantasy readers, because of his lyrical prose, his power of story and his sensibility of fantasy as ultimately the layers of story within our world.
His most mythic work – indeed, the core of Gaiman’s mythos – would be his comics series of The Sandman. It is of course within the genre of fantasy, with an episode even winning the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Fiction (prompting the awards administration thereafter to revise – or remember – the rules of that award to exclude comics or graphic novels). Indeed, it “falls within the dark fantasy genre, albeit in a more contemporary or modern setting”, but transcends genre – and audience appeal, attracting fans who weren’t traditionally seen as readers of comics or fantasy – into urban fantasy, epic fantasy, historical drama, superheroes, mythology and more. Its mythos, and even more so its mythic themes of the power of belief and the power of story, recur throughout Gaiman’s writing.
My favorite Gaiman novel is the Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award-winning American Gods, in some ways a reenactment of The Sandman mythos in the microcosm of a single novel, as well as its central themes of the power of belief and power of story. It has one of my favorite protagonists of fantasy, Shadow Moon – who wants nothing more than to return to his wife and a job with his best friend after release from prison. However, he finds himself at a loose end after his wife and best friend are killed in a car accident – in a compromising position with each other – and accepts a job offer as a ‘bodyguard’ for a mysterious benefactor, Wednesday. This job takes him into a world of gods and mythological creatures, that exist because people believe in them. (The identity of Wednesday, revealed soon in the novel, is of course immediately apparent from his appearance and name for those familiar with the particular mythology). However, existence is hard for the old gods, such as the Norse gods and the Egyptian gods, originally brought to America by their believers, but now surviving on the leftover flotsam and jetsam of belief. As one old god gripes about a successful Jesus – “There’s a lucky son of a virgin”.
I particularly have a soft spot for the Egyptian gods in American Gods – Anubis or Mr Jacquel, Thoth or Mr Ibis, and Bast. Sadly, hawk-headed Horus has gone mad and is living off roadkill in the desert. Although where are the Olympian gods?!
Wednesday himself survives as a magical conman and grifter. However, he has a plan for a showdown with the rising new gods, the power-hungry gods of media and technology, and Shadow is part of that plan. Shadow is helped by his revenant wife, mistakenly brought back (partly) from the dead by a magic piece of gold from the fairy hoard (thrown into her grave by Shadow) – who, in turn, only wants Shadow to help her be either truly alive or truly dead. And so Shadow sets out on various quests, including the hero’s mythic night journey into the underworld – ultimately to find out more about himself, his deeper connection to the old gods and how to be truly alive.
And of course there are Gaiman’s lyrical invocations of gods and goddesses, the latter such that I have canonized Gaiman as one of my saints of pagan catholicism and apostles of the goddess
RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****
(1) J. R. R. TOLKIEN – THE LORD OF THE RINGS (1954)
One book to rule them all!
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings defined modern literary fantasy, just as its cinematic adaptation arguably defined modern cinematic fantasy. Fantasy could well be classified as pre-Tolkien and post-Tolkien. In the words of TV Tropes, The Lord of the Rings is “the most recent addition to the canon of Western epic literature and is the epic which set the stage for the entire high fantasy genre that followed in its wake”. Such was its impact and influence, that Tolkien has been identified as the father of modern fantasy literature or high fantasy, although of course there were many other writers of fantasy before (and apart from) Tolkien – perhaps most notably Robert E. Howard, writer of Conan. I particularly note Robert E. Howard, because I understand that Tolkien read and enjoyed the Conan stories – and because I couldn’t resist including George R. R. Martin, who came to The Lord of The Rings from those very different Conan stories:
“Robert E. Howard’s stories usually opened with a giant serpent slithering by or an axe cleaving someone’s head in two. Tolkien opened his with a birthday party…Conan would hack a bloody path right through the Shire, end to end, I remembered thinking…Yet I kept on reading. I almost gave up at Tom Bombadil, when people started going Hey! Come derry do! Tom Bombadillo!”. Things got more interesting in the barrow downs, though, and even more so in Bree, where Strider strode onto the scene. By the time we got to Weathertop, Tolkien had me…A chill went through me, such as Conan and Kull have never evoked”
On the other hand, Conan would have made quick work of the Quest, while making off with an elf girl or two…
Indeed, just as A. H. Whitehead stated that the western philosophical tradition could most safely be generalized as being footnotes to Plato, so too might modern fantasy literature be generalized as sequels or epilogues to Tolkien – and Stephen King has done just that in his non-fiction study of horror Danse Macabre, attributing modern fantasy to a hunger for more stories about hobbits.
Much of the appeal of The Lord of the Rings is the depth of its world-building, or what Tolkien identified as his legendarium of Middle Earth. On the other hand, this can present as a flaw to more modern readers as a potential lack of pacing, or where world-building takes precedence to story. However, this is not surprising since the world-building was essentially Tolkien’s life hobby, from which the story revolved in recitations and into which Tolkien was not above shoehorning other ideas – the aforementioned Tom Bombadil for example, or The Hobbit itself to some extent, or as Hugo Dyson infamously exclaimed during one of Tolkien’s recitations, “Not another f…g elf!” (The same might have been said of yet another poem, song or verse).
Perhaps another sexy elf…?
However, I prefer the reaction of C. S. Lewis – “here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron. Here is a book which will break your heart”. Indeed, there are and it is. For me, I loved the depth of Tolkien’s world, one of the few fictional worlds I regard as real as our own (canonically, it is meant to be a mythic precursor of our own world) – or indeed, perhaps more real. Again, as George R. R. Martin wrote – “The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real…They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to Middle Earth”
As for the story, like George R. R. Martin, I was enchanted and entranced – but unlike George R. R. Martin, from the very start in the Shire. The story itself should be well known to any reader (or viewer) of fantasy, and in any event is too complex to discuss in depth here, but can be summarized as the Quest to destroy the One Ring, the source of the Adversary or Dark Lord Sauron’s power. Its themes are the themes of humanity in any world – life and mortality, the corruption or addiction of power, courage and compassion, triumph against adversity and at the same time the sense of loss for those things lost in battle or passing from the world.
RATING: IT’S A RAVE (WITH SOME RANTING, MAINLY ABOUT ELVES)! 5 STARS*****