We’ve already covered first science fiction books, now it’s time to flip the coin with this week’s panelists. So we asked them:
Check below to see their responses. And tell us what book got you hooked!
Brandon was chosen to complete Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. That book, The Gathering Storm will be available in October 2009 and can be sampled on Tor.com.
The first fantasy I was ever given was Tolkien. For many, perhaps, that would be the end of the story. But I wasn’t a terribly good reader at the time, and though I read and enjoyed the The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings was like a big brick wall. I slammed right into it and couldn’t get past the barrow scene.
And so, I figured fantasy was boring stuff and went back to video games. (Atari 2600–state of the art.)
The real breakthrough came when I hit 8th grade. A teacher assigned me to do a book report, and I tried with all my conniving little heart to get her to let me do mine on one of the Three Investigators novels (which I’d enjoyed reading in second or third grade.) The result of this little power struggle was me, sullenly slinking to the back of the room where she kept her cart of books, bearing the instructions that I HAD to pick one of those to read.
And there, sitting in full Michael-Whelan-Covered-Glory, was Dragonsbane by Barbara Hambly. I think angels might have sung (though it was probably the school choir class next door.) Anyway, that was beginning of the end for me. I LOVED that book; and right next to it in the card catalogue at school was a listing for Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey.
Eddings, Melanie Rawn, and Williams came next. I was thoroughly a fantasy super-geek by the time 1990 rolled around, and Eye of The World was published.
The first fantasy I can remember reading was The Phantom Tollbooth, that classic by Norton Juster, with all those line drawings by Jules Feiffer. Of course, when you’re nine or ten you don’t know it’s a classic, you just think that you, personally, have discovered the greatest book ever written.
Check it, people: Milo gets his own electric car, meets his own -watch- dog, Tock, solves riddles, saves kingdoms… Is there anything cooler? The impression it made never faded. Years later, when my kids were old enough, I forced them to sit still while I read it aloud to them (though I didn’t have to force them for long — the story moves.) And I was happy to discover that not only did I pick up on jokes and puns that went straight over my head the first time, the story still engaged me.
A couple of years ago I was finally able to use my love for the story in a story of my own. “Unpossible,” which was published in F&SF, came from wondering about Milo after he grew up and became middle aged. Would the car still work for him? Could he go back to the Lands Beyond? (The answer is yes. And no.)
So I owe Mr. Juster many times over. I can’t wait to read Tollbooth to my grandchildren.
Asking what book introduced me to fantasy is kinda like asking me what book introduced me to English. Fantasy wasn’t something I was introduced to, it was something I was immersed in from the very beginning. When I was little, I had a record of The Hobbit and the accompanying read-along book. At night my mom read to me out of a huge book of bible stories. I also enjoyed Winnie the Pooh. There were no dividing lines between these things. They were all just stories. And honestly, honestly, that’s an opinion I carry with me to this day.
But still, there is a first book of sorts.
When I was a kid, I was really reluctant to leave picture books behind. I loved to read, but I simply wasn’t interested in making the move to “adult” books. That is, books that were nothing but text. I could read them just fine, they just seemed really boring to me.
My mom, on the other hand, was tired of taking me to the library, maxing out her library card with picture books, then having me read all of them in a day.
So she made kind of a production of it. We went to Waldenbooks in the mall and she bought me the boxed set of the Narnia Chronicles. She said, “You’re getting to be quite the young man now. I think you’re ready for these.”
At thirteen, I read The Once and Future King, which probably qualifies as the first “adult” fantasy I ever read (and it took me nearly a year to read it!), and that led me to reading Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy a year or two later, The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment.
But probably the first-ever “traditional” fantasy novel I read-a novel set in a make-believe world and involving wizards and magic, good and evil, and a quest (in this case, to stop the villain)-was The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs. It’s often classified as a YA novel, and I was indeed young when I read it (fifteen years old), but I’ve also read it multiple times as an adult, and I always thoroughly enjoy revisiting that book.
Bellairs’ novel had a formative influence on my ideas about fantasy storytelling in many ways. It’s both wondrous and prosaic; the lead character faces towering magical events and saves the world… but he also deals with mundane practical problems, which makes him accessible and real, despite his extraordinary skills and magical world. The book is terrifying and funny by turns, and that sort of sensibility has always attracted me as a reader and influenced me as a writer. Like all good fantasy (in my opinion), the book is about fundamental human issues, such as friendship, loyalty, duty, sacrifice, betrayal, greed, facing your demons, dealing with consequences, choosing your path in life, and-of course-good and evil. And, overall, it just has a wonderful atmosphere that makes me want to crawl inside the novel and live there when I’m reading it-and I consider that an essential quality of good fantasy writing: to lure the reader into your elaborate world, rather than to bludgeon the reader with your world-building.
I will add that I didn’t try Lord of the Rings until I was in my early twenties… and, frankly, I found it tedious. Just not my sort of thing. (I found the recent movie trilogy tedious, too.) Upon learning this about me, many people have declared with shocked dismay that We Can No Longer Be Acquainted. So if that’s your reaction, too-well, get in line!
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away — Hornsby Heights Primary School, to be exact — my school librarian introduced me to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I was about 9. And honestly? That was it. After reading that book, that was my life in fiction. (She also introduced me to Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five novels and that was the other half of my reading passion completed. Speculative Fiction and Crime … my two great genre loves.) Anyhow, getting back to Narnia …
I devoured the rest of the series as fast as I could, after reading that first amazing Narnia book. I still re-read them to this day, and I get just as upset now over the awful things that happen as I did when I was a little tyke in baby school. And that to me is a testament to the power of a great story. I refuse to be jaded and cynical about the Narnia books. Of course when I read them as an adult I’m able to recognise Lewis’ cultural and philosophical foundations. Whatever quibbles I might or might not have with them now, in 2009, decades later, take nothing away from the raw emotional impact of the story. I love all those characters, especially wonderfully brave little Reepicheep. I hurt anew for Edmund and his terrible choices and the pain that follows from them. I admire Lucy’s steadfastness. I rejoice when Prince Caspian is returned to his rightful place on the throne. I laugh at Trumpkin’s grumpiness. I confess I find Peter the least interesting of them all because he never truly struggled with anything, not like Edmund and Eustace, say. I’m most drawn to characters who suffer.
I love that those books remind me of the innocent enthusiasms of childhood reading, a time before the adult world intrudes. They remind of what it feels like to get so lost in a world not our own that only the made-up world exists. I suspect I’ll re-read them until I drop dead of old age.
I came into fantasy through the back door of YA horror back in the mid 1970s (of course, it wasn’t called YA then), and from reading folklore and regional collections of ghost stories. Then I found out there was a genre that included all of that, along with dragons and castles and I was hooked. I think the first “fantasy” book I remember was Jane–Emily by Patricia Clapp (which I’m glad to see has finally been reissued after being out of print for a long time). I also devoured anything by Poe and then Tolkien and so by the mid-to-late 1970s was thoroughly hooked.
Mythology was my route into fantasy. I know that by the time I was eight I had taken the two volumes of D’Aulaires’ mythology (Norse Gods and Giants and Book of Greek Myths) out of the library so often that I thought of them as “mine.” I had read the full Iliad and Odyssey by the time I was nine.
One of my “aunts” (Meredith Compton) gave me George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie for my tenth birthday. She gave me P.L. Traver’s Mary Poppins in the Park for my eleventh. I don’t know if these were my earliest “fantasy” titles, but I do know that since I owned them, rather than having to take them out from the library, I read them over and over.
Like many people from my generation, I was introduced to the fantasy genre by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles as fast as my weekly allowance allowed, and then saved my pennies to buy the Dragonlance Legends. There was something inherently cool about that little band of heroes setting out against gods, dragons, and dragon highlords. The characterization was — to the mind of a twelve-year-old newbie — top notch.
No matter what the franchise became afterwards, there are millions of us who still have fond memories of Tanis, Caramon, Sturm, Laurana, Kitiara, Raistlin, Tass, and the rest of the gang. To this day, I continue to recommend the Dragonlance Chronicles to every young reader who wants to get into the genre.
Funny thing, though, is that I didn’t understand English all that well back in those days. Which means that I read Dragons of Autumn Twilight with the help of a French/English dictionary. As you know, Raistlin walked around with the Staff of Magius, and I didn’t know what a staff was. And my stupid dictionary said that a staff was a group of people working in an office, etc. So I was forced to wait till my English class the following Monday to ask my teacher. When she began by telling me it was a group of people working somewhere, I guess I made a face because she promptly added that it was some kind of big stick. Dumbass I may have been (still is, according to many!), but I sure as hell knew that Raistlin wasn’t walking around with a group of co-workers!
The single most influential books of my early childhood are the first chapter books I remember reading, and I read and re-read and re-re-read those particular books so many times that I still have a visceral memory of the words on the page, my hands holding the individual volume, and breathing in that experience, which entirely engrossed the young me.
I’m talking about my father’s childhood copies of Thornton Burgess’s Mother West Wind tales (we had several volumes). These are talking animal books, set in the “natural” world and with the animals and the wind (etc) anthropomorphized, so I’m going to call that fantasy. I continued to read animal stories of all kinds into junior high (what we in ancient days called what is now middle school); meanwhile, I was sliding bit by bit, via the cheap paperback Scholastic Books which we could buy at school, into fantastical and science fictional stories, although even then I tended to go for stories that had animals in them.
The next narrative that had an equivalent impact was The Lord of the Rings, which I read when I was in 8th grade (13 years old).
When I was eight years old my only very slightly older brother, Oscar Malan, told me about a book I should read about kids who went through a wardrobe into another world and met a witch, and a lion and had great adventures. Obviously the book was C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The very next time I was in the children’s room of the public library with my grade three class I asked for the book. The cute new boy in class overheard me, and asked me about it. Apparently charmed by my enthusiastic description, he carried the book home for me. So, not only my first fantasy read, but my first cute boy carrying my books home from school. I think this created a pattern of good luck, as I went on to read other fantasy and SF, and eleven years after this first experience I met my husband in a library. My brother gets a nod in the acknowledgements of my first fantasy novel, The Mirror Prince. In a related story, it was also my brother Oscar who recommended my first SF novel, Have Space Suit – Will Travel. He now owns a bookstore where he can recommend things to his heart’s content.
The first book that introduced me to fantasy was The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. It pulled me into a dark winter and I think it was the first time I fell into a book so thoroughly. I remember feeling different when I put it down. I’d just started reading chapter books and my librarian recommended it. And then, The Hobbit anchored me firmly in place. Those two books are books I cherish to this day and I’m looking forward to reading them to my daughters.
The Hobbit. Not exactly original, but true. I don’t know how I came across it, but I read it during a summer holiday, visiting my father in Trinidad when I was twelve. My reading of The Hobbit was done mostly on the back porch of a small cottage on that tropical island. Every so often I’d look up and watch the wild fires erupt across the hills in the distance, the sky filled with vultures circling through the smoke. I’d wipe curry-flavored sweat from my forehead and get distracted every now and then by lizards running up the wall. And… I’d read about Bilbo and Gandalf and the gang.
It didn’t matter where I was or how far removed Port of Spain was from Middle Earth. It didn’t matter that I was living in a world of brown-skinned people, none of whom had any real representatives in Tolkien’s pages. It didn’t matter that dragons and elves and dwarves had no place in my father’s life.
Or… Well… Maybe it did matter. Maybe the significant thing was just that fact; that I was falling into a universe so outside my own home life or experience. In some ways I was a fairly well traveled kid, but having my passport stamped with entry to Middle Earth was just as formative an experience as any flight toward the equator. It’s one I took with friends known only to me (or so it seemed) to places that felt especially created for me to explore.
A few years later – when I met the crew that joined me for long sessions of D&D – I started to understand just how many other people had befriended Tolkein’s characters. That was nice too, but I was formed as an adolescent by having to reach outside of the norms presented me for a creative life. It was a solitary thing: me, the books, and the characters I secretly found inside them. That’s how I’ll always remember it.
Urban fantasy (by the likes of Charles de Lint) which is set in pretty much our reality with a bunch of fascinating things slipping through the cracks to make our lives difficult has always had its own fascination.
Before that…the two authors who drew my attention to historical fantasy – and by that I mean an “alternate reality” world (but with characters who were Real People in our own reality, as it were) or a world just a TWEAK different from ours, or a world where the history is awfully familiar but you can’t QUITE place anything until you realise that the author has taken our history and shuffled it like a pack of playing cards and re-created something that seems as though you should recognise it but you get thwarted by the fact that you’re looking at a zebra with a rhino horn… – were Judith Tarr and Guy Gavriel Kay. Judith Tarr’s Hound and Falcon trilogy – and its two follow-ups, Alamut and The Dagger and the Cross – were a revelation to me; Kay’s recreations of an alternate Provence (Song for Arbonne) or medieval Spain in El Cid’s time (The Lions of Al-Rassan) made me into a die-hard fan, and his Tigana is one of the best books I’ve ever read, EVER, bar none.
Before that, there was Rober Zelazny and Amber – books which acted like magic mushrooms to my imagination, opening my mind to seeing things JUST out of my line of sight, teaching me that ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE – that anything at all that can happen, and some things that you think can’t, usually will happen eventually if you only wait long enough…
Before THAT, there was the epic – THE epic – The Lord of the Rings, the thing that taught me scope and range and reach and the power of history and background and lives that were lived long before your own but which still reach out to touch yours, just as yours will someday touch in some unexpected way the life of someone else as yet unborn who will somehow change because you will have lived.
Before that… there was the so-called “simpler” stuff. Narnia. Before that, the fairy tales (the original versions, thank you. I grew up with the Hans Christian Andersen tearjerkers, and the unbowdlerised Cinderella where blood dripped out of glass slippers as heels and toes were cut off for a foot to fit. The things that taught me the basics – how to tell right from wrong, how to survive in a wild forest, how to talk to animals and how to revere a lion (because he was not a TAME lion) called Aslan, how to fly on the wind or weep tears of pearl or go to lands that were west of the moon and east of the sun.
Before that, there were the mythologies of the world – Slavic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Celtic, Oriental, Polynesian, Amerind, Aboriginal. Back, my friends. Back to the dawn of time.
My relationship to fantasy has been that of Scheherezade and her stories. Always, always, there is one more tale to tell, a new place to go, a new person to be.
I have thousands of books. Thousands of voices whisper in my library. Thousands of worlds live and breathe side by side, trapped between covers. Every one of those books “introduced me” to fantasy. The debt is vast, and shared amongst many.
Easy one. The Borribles by Michael de Larrabeiti is the book that set my whole perception of fantasy, back when I was a mere nipper — I couldn’t tell you exactly how old, but I’d guess about eight or nine. It’s possible that I read C.S. Lewis before, but Narnia is allegory, right? So fuck that Christian shit. Besides, everyone gets The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe foisted on them in school, so it doesn’t count. No, The Borribles is the first fantasy book I discovered for myself, and it pretty much set the mould for the type of fantasy I’ve been interested in ever since. I’d call it urban fantasy, if that term hadn’t been co-opted to something else. What it is, is one of those fantasies in which our world is permeated by the fantastic, more Neil Gaiman than Terry Brooks. You don’t have to go through a portal to find a magic polder, a refuge from reality. The fantastic doesn’t invade via some rift, as a terrible threat to be averted. No, it’s just there already, in the seams, the interstices, the back-alleys and side-streets of our world.
See, the book sort of turns a savagely cynical eye on two cherished childhood fictions — Peter Pan and The Wombles — takes them round the back of the bike sheds and gives them a sound drubbing. The Borribles are what the Lost Boys would really be like, stripped of all the wistful sentimentality of Neverland. There’s no fairytale island here; this is 70s London and Borribles are thieving little street oiks, runaways who’ve decided that growing up is a mug’s game and they’re just not going to bother. Instead these pointy-eared punks live in squats, stealing electricity, food, clothes, whatever they need to survive, always in danger of being caught by the fuzz, who’ll clip their ears if they catch them — causing them to grow up after all, the worst possible fate a Borrible can imagine. Meanwhile, their deadly foes, the “rumbles,” are what the wombles would really be like — giant rodents armed with “rumble sticks”, lethal staff-weapons with a six-inch-nail embedded in the top, giant rats who live in a vast warren underneath “Rumbledon Common.” With their lisping hatred for those “howwible bowwibles,” and their somewhat poncy ways, there’s more than a hint of class war here. There’s as much Steerpike as Artful Dodger in your average Borrible, and you can’t help but feel that, with the rumbles, the author is taking a pop at all the bourgeois bollocks of children’s fiction for and by the middle-classes. This is what you’d get if Roald Dahl had been into the Clash.
The plot? Every Borrible has to earn his name in an adventure, see, so a Dirty Dozen style team of unnamed Borribles is brought together — one from every borough — on a mission of assassination. Each takes the name of their target, a member of the rumble High Command — Napoleon, Torreycanyon, Vulgaria, and so on. And not only do you get the perils and shenanigans as the heroes cross London; when they finally get into the rumble base, the methods of killing are… brutally inventive, to say the least. All I’ll say is that the sequel has a decapitation by shovel, in a Wandsworth sewer, with all manner of scabrous adventure leading up to it. The result is fun of the most vicious kind, a trilogy of tales with all the adventure, betrayal, slaughter, larceny, slavery, intrigue and redemption any blood-thirsty kid could hope for. The Borribles books piss on everything Enid Blyton ever wrote, and they’re probably the reason I never could take Tolkien that seriously. Furry-footed little critters that live underground and fuss over high tea and tiffin? Sounds like effing rumbles to me, mate. Bollocks to ’em.