Mr. Stark is a gentleman and scholar who has been selling books for many years.
Wait...I have to read to write?
We all have one author we want to be. Indeed, I suspect that fantasy lovers are particularly apt to romanticizing our writing idols. Thanks to the advent of social media, the line between author and celebrity is growing more obscure. Who doesn't want to be the next George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss? Unfortunately, Game of Thrones has already been written. Funny how that works.
The trick to being the next big hit in anything is understanding the domain. The same is true of the fantasy genre, though it is a fickle and capricious lover. On the one hand, If you write without reading you won't understand the conventions of the genre and will appear as an alien to your readers. On the other hand, if you write identical to what you read then your work will be outdated and rife with cliches.
For readers and hobby writers, none of this matters. But if you want to take your work and writing seriously, here are six books you must read to stay ahead of the curve.
The Eye of the World
“I will hate the man you choose because he is not me, and love him if he makes you smile. No woman deserves the sure knowledge of widow’s black as her brideprice, you least of all.”
— Robert Jordan -The Eye of the World
Despite harkening back to a time when cell phones were the size of your fist, much of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is familiar. This is because it is from hear that we get many of the classic fantasy cliches at their best: Long Tolkienesque travelouges, the chosen one stopping a dark lord, the coming of age farmboy, corny romances, epic style climaxes that shadow the bulk of the text, verbose descriptive text, and more.
The Wheel of Time is a long and tedious journey, but it will not leave you worse for wear. The import of this book, as one of the greatest selling fantasy series of all time, is irrefutable. Recent fantasy, especially grimdark, enjoys taking jab after jab at the tropes littered through Jordan. However, in the 90s, these themes and ideas were at their zenith and resonated with readers. Some of these themes remain in recent fantasy, whereas others have been reduced to mocking humour. Yet regardless of whether or not modern readers have the patience to savor this story is irrelevant. If you want to write fantasy you must read The Eye of the World to understand to roots of the modern fantasy genre.
Gardens of the Moon
“Convergence,” Tool said. “Power ever draws other power.”
— Gardens of the Moon- Steven Erikson
It hurt to choose this quote, as good as it is. There are so many brilliant lines from Erikson that are to fantasy lovers as fine wine is to a connoisseur---particularly a personal favorite on futility. Alas this quote captures the significance of the Malazan Book of the Fallen to the genre, namely, epicness.
We have all heard the term 'epic fantasy'. Indeed, I would argue we are far too quick to apply that term. Patrick Rothfuss's Name of the Wind is not epic fantasy. Epic fantasy is about utter size. Not page count---though the Malazan books are monsters---but scope. Epic fantasy is about intensifying stakes and possibility. No series does this better than Malazan: mulptiple continents, hundreds of PoVs, dozens of arcs, millennia of history, dozens of races, gods, ascensions, extinction, war, begrudged love, philosophies. Malazan has it all. It is the ceiling for the fantastical.
It is for precisely this reason that Gardens of the Moon is important to read. This book hits the ground running at the pace of a 100m dash over the distance of a marathon. For this, it has often been criticized. I, myself, was left discouraged at the end of the first book and it took me many more years before I was ready to give the second book at shot (at which point I devoured the series). Malazan is as hardcore as fantasy gets. Confusion is the predominant state of mind when reading.
As much as we love the epic and fantastical elements of fantasy, the writer must understand that more we indulge this fancy the smaller our niche becomes and the better the content must be. Epic and vast stories such as Malazan sacrifice character empathy for the epic synergistic climax. As a writer you must decide: are you telling a personal story like Name of the Wind, or the story of a world like Malazan?
“Every man has his excuses, and the more vile the man becomes, the more touching the story has to be. What is my story now, I wonder?”
— The Blade Itself -Joe Abercrombie
Ahh, the self-acclaimed LordGrimdark. If the reference to Homer doesn't sell you, then its significance for the genre should. Admittedly, I hesitate to call this a turning point for fantasy. Many books and authors were doing gritty, dark, realistic fantasy long before Abercrombie. However, I do mark The Blade Itself as the fruition of the genre's self-awareness. What makes The Blade Itself so distinctive is not that it is so very different from 90s fantasy, but rather that it is conscious of and draws attentions to that fact. There are many implicit and borderline explicit moments in this book that challenge and contest conventions of the genre.
Even the characters centralize around this differentiation: a barbarian from the north that doesn't want to fight anymore, a narcissistic prince that justifies his whining with a great jawline, and a crippled torturer constantly undergoing an existential crisis. There is a level of cynicism and reflection in Abercrombie's work that is just beautiful. It isn't some extreme vilification of the genre's trope and an extreme abjection towards diametric opposites. Like postmodernism in philosophy, The Blade Itself doesn't so much as add a new school of fantasy as it does acknowledge the genre's history through subtle humor and banal human moments.
The Lies of Locke Lamora
“To us — richer and cleverer than everyone else!”
— The Lies of Locke Lamora -Scott Lynch
Wit and Thieves
Fantasy has always loved thieves. Even those that aren't active readers in the genre have played D&D with a rogue or joined the thieve's guild in Skyrim. In the last decade or so this archetype has seen a boom. The success of the Assassin's Creed games as well as novels like Brent Week's Nightangel are testimony enough. These scoundrels have always had a conventional place in our hearts.
Yet I have chosen Scott Lynch with reason. The Lies of Locke Lamora not only garners its success largely from the popularity of thieves, but goes above and beyond by stretching readers expectations. For starters, Lynch employs a relatively fresh setting for the book. With Lynch we depart from the classic medieval castles and enter a Renaissance Venetian city. Say goodbye to travelogues and hello to mobster politics.The big players are no longer nations waging war or over zealous priests but instead gang lords and nobility. Conflict becomes less about xenophobic culture crossing and more about tensions between socioeconomic classes in a singular city.
It is into this small cranny, between the very rich and the very poor, that we fall in love with our protagonist, Locke Lamora. Locke is the classic shadow skulking thief we know and love but he is also much more. He is a con artist. With unerring eloquence he swindles and hustles the well-spoken and knave alike. Moreover, it is not just Locke that is well spoken. The entirety of dialogue within this novel is an entire new caliber for the fantasy genre. Hirthero, the quality of dialogue had been getting steadily better, but Lynch burst from the waters like a great white shark.
Lynch sets a benchmark for fantasy, both for humor and dialogue. Every writer, not just fantasy writers, should aspire to this dialogue. As a fantasy writer, it is critical to understand both how this mode of humor peaked with Lynch and how the Venetian urban setting continues to grow more and more popular in fantasy (e.g., Nevernight by Jay Kristoff, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo).
Name of the Wind
“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”
— Name of the Wind -Patrick Rothfuss
The First Person Revolution
Perhaps the most revolutionary book to ever debut in the fantasy genre. Those who know Rothfuss's story know how gruelingly long it took him to get published. I would argue this is because he is simultaneously doing something both familiar and radically different. On the one hand, Name of the Wind feels like truly classical fantasy. A coming of age boy, an adventure, a school of magic, Tolkienesque word play. All welcomed conventions to those readers in the genre and small hurtles to those outside it. On the other hand, Rothfuss did something other fiction genres have been doing since their birth: he made the protagonist personal.
The story of Name of the Wind is an intimate and sentimental story of a boy. It is not a fantasy epic. No wars, no fireballs, and especially no dragons. In fantasy, we are all too use to believing that events only matter if the stakes are high. If it's anything less than the obliteration of a nation it doesn't really matter. If swords aren't flying it doesn't keep our attention. But Rothfuss changed that. I cared more about Kvothe getting his loan and paying rent than I did the destruction of the One Ring.
Rothfuss slows fantasy down. Shows us the poignant power of words and emotions. A large part of this is exaggerated by his choice to pursue the first-person narrative. While this has been done before, the fantasy genre has been pretty fixed to third-person, and even when you did find a first person novel it usually had the same focus and delivery as those third-persons. Name of the Wind, however, uses first-person for what it does well: empathy. Kvothe is so deep a character he drives you through a slow-moving and small cast plot. There are, of course, sacrifices to this. In only having a singular perspective, Rothfuss could never execute a a climax like Sanderson (the explosive type where many threads and plots come crashing together). But in return Rothfuss delivers a protagonist-reader connection too long denied to the genre. In doing so, he opens the genre to many that previously sneered at fantasy novels and delivers a fresh experience to those immersed in it. Since his astounding success, several fantasy series (such as Anthony Ryan's Blood Song) have decided to emphasize singular deep characterization.
A Darker Shade of Magic
“I'd rather die on an adventure than live standing still.”
— A Darker Shade of Magic -V.E. Schwab
Jumping Forward In Fantasy
This is where fantasy is headed. Of course, there will always be the traditional fantasy we know and love. Authors like Brandon Sanderson will breathe fresh life into heroic fantasy, Sam Sykes will provide adventure fantasy for all those tabletop fans, Brian McClellan, Lila Bowen, and many others continue to take fantasy into new historical settings. The other subgenres will not die. But the space authors like Schwab have opened in fantasy will grow exponentially.
I have sold a lot of Darker Shade of Magic, no small thanks to my pitch. I always describe this book as "Adult Harry Potter meets Dr. Who". Perhaps not the most accurate description but it makes eyes go wide and never brings back complaints. When I first finished reading this book I could think of no description better than 'fresh'.
So why is it orientating for the genre? I think a large part of Schwab's success is due to her background in writing. In the last decade fantasy has exploded in the Young Adult section of bookstores. Yet adult fantasy has remained largely traditional in its style.The YA boom has brought a substantial crowd into fantasy that otherwise would never have considered reading the imaginary. However, with this has come a wellspring of cliche. Darker Shade of Magic succeeds at merging young adult with adult fantasy. It takes all the fast pacing and simple plotting of young adult and discards all the cliche and immaturity. It blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy. In a nutshell, it opens fantasy to a much broader audience.
Whether or not we like to admit it, fantasy is a genre often intimidating and often degraded. Demographics often devolve into a binary: you are either a fantasy connoisseur that knows far too much old english and can identify the parts of a sword, or you are entrenched in very classical good versus evil farmboy fantasy. But not everyone is content with the antiquated themes of the genre and not everyone has a bias for gods fighting dragons over castles in the mountains.
Darker Shade of Magic is a new realm of fantasy. The plot is the classical 'One Ring of Doom' style quest but the path is twisting and not linear. The characters are few but elegantly simple and flavorful. It isn't 400,000 words but the world is at stake. It is a trilogy but doesn't slug along from one book into the next. It introduces a romanticized world of wonder without putting a map on the first page. It is fantasy for people that know nothing about fantasy and didn't know they could even like fantasy. It's fresh.
The Trend of Fantasy
You Know Nothing!
I know what you are thinking: "WHERE IS TOLKIEN?!?! WHERE IS MARTIN?!" Well, let me explain...
Song of Ice and Fire
Song of Ice and Fire? You mean Game of Thrones, right?
George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones is a great book. Yet I remind my reader that this article discusses books defining for the genre's projection and does not take success or quality as a measurement of qualification. While the book was certainty progressive---especially Ned Stark---and belonged to a growing trend of more realistic and political fantasy, I do not consider any moment or decision radical enough to be called a pivotal moment in the genre's history. That being said, we must acknowledge that the TV series has brought an unprecedented number of new readers into the fantasy section and with these new readers the genre will undergo new expectations and resultant changes.
The Lord of the Rings
One Ring to Start it All
How can we ignore granddad? Anyone who reads fantasy today must do their due diligence and pay homage to this genius mind. Nevertheless, he does not qualify as a novel pivotal in the evolution of the genre. I certainly accredit him with the genesis of the genre, however the fantasy of Tolkien (from the omniscience narrator, to the prose, to the pacing) does not relate strongly enough to modern fantasy writers to be an asset to them, just as tasting a vintage wine does not inform a wine maker into the modern taste of the demographic. I daresay that if Tolkien was alive today and submitted The Fellowship of the Ring manuscript to Tor he would not be published. Tolkien strove to bring a history of myth and fantasy into novel format, a task much different than the production of a product for an entertainment sector of industry. Whereas reading the books above will teach an aspiring author about the trajectory of the genre, Tolkien will teach them little that will help them get published today. So go read your Tolkien because he is great, not because it will help you keep ahead of the curve.
The Next Move
Fantasy is a beautiful genre. In so many ways it is full of authors and readers that love traditions. Indeed, part of what makes us love fantasy so is a romanticism and nostalgia for past settings. Yet in many ways, it is one of the fastest changing genres. Because of its imaginary capacity, there are no bounds for authors. Everything is possible. You have to be really skilled and really lucky to ride in the wake and shadow of an existing trend. But to be the next big thing, the next movement, you have to be smarter. FInd the gaps in the genre. Find the lack. Got it? Good. Now go write.
From Readers to Writers
Too Many Books
Unfortunately, there are more books on the fantasy shelves than I could ever possibly read. Did I miss something critical? Disagree with my assessment? Comment and let me know. The more informed our writers the greater the quality for readers.
© 2017 Wesley Stark