We recently discussed Science Fiction Books That Will Stand The Test of Time. It only seems fair to do the same for Fantasy novels. So we asked this week’s panelists:
What follows is what they said. Are your favorites listed?
I’m spoiled for choice here: The past decade has been freakishly productive of fantasy masterpieces. I could pick half a dozen books, literally, which I think is actually pretty unusual in the history of the genre, or of any genre really. It’s a cluster. A classic cluster. Somebody should write a dissertation about it.
But I have to choose, so I’m going to choose Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Not only is it a great book, with vast ambitions that it completely fulfills, it’s different from anything that came before it, and anything that comes after it will have to be different because of it. There’s no possible way I could or would have written The Magicians without it.
Bottom line, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will become a classic because it’s a god damned masterpiece. There aren’t any better reasons than that, are there?
I’m a short story writer and reader. At first I thought of writing about one of the Jeff Ford or Kelly Link short fiction collections – all of which were published after the turn of the millennium. Then I considered all the anthologies that appeared over the same ten years and decided instead to highlight Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s themed anthology, The Faery Reel – Tales from the Twilight Realm.
This is the second volume of their “Mythic Series” which began with The Green Man and continued with Coyote Road and this year’s The Beastly Bride (disclosure: I have stories in the two most recent volumes). The theme of The Faery Reel is Fairy Folk in all their aspects in every culture in which they appear. The skill of the anthologists is in keeping the theme flexible enough so that the range of stores is as wide as the imagination.
The Faery Reel includes tales by Ford and Link, two major fantasists. And these may be my favorites of all stories that either has written.
Ford’s “Annals of Eelin Ok -details the brief but well rounded life of a Twilmish, a creature whose lifespan is that of a sandcastle. So perfect and likely is the story that one finishes it and goes looking for more Twilmish tales only to discover that this is the first and only one.
Link’s “The Faery Handbag” a contemporary tale with worlds within worlds so rich and so likely that you’ll wonder why your grandmother never warned you about the dangers of accessories found in antique clothing warehouses.
The Ford story won the late, lamented Fountain Award. The Link won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus. And between them they kind of sucked all the oxygen away from all the other stories in The Faery Reel, that would have gotten much more attention if seen on their own. (This often happens: the first few times I got anthologized I always ended up next to Gene Wolfe which I thought was just plain unfair).
In this case, a poem by Neil Gaiman, tales by Gregory Frost, Katherine Vas, Hiromi Goto, Delia Sherman, Patricia A, McKillip and a dozen other poems and tales remain under valued and there for future readers’ discovery or rediscovery.
When I first got this question, my mind instantly went to traditional fantasy-epic, swords and sorcery, high fantasy. Then I caught myself. What about urban and contemporary fantasy? Why wasn’t I thinking of them? I realized that although I love urban and contemporary fantasy, I wasn’t at all in the habit of thinking of it in terms of literary quality-of standing the test of time. It made me really reconsider this question think about what I consider good, lasting fantasy. And when I did, I realized that there is a lot of excellent urban/contemporary fantasy out there.
I’ll start with traditional fantasy and those that I think will stand up. I can’t pick a single book, because as you know, a lot of fantasy comes in a series. And of course I haven’t read everything, so I’m going to go from what I know, and books that make me come back and read them over and over.
First off is Carol Berg’s Rai Kirah series: Transformation, Revelation and Restoration. These are amazing books-incredible world building, complex characters, and tight, interesting plots. The writing is tremendous.
Next, I would offer up C.E. Murphy’s The Queen’s Bastard and The Pretender’s Crown. These feel like historical fantasy, while offering up a completely original world and characters. These books are gritty and tense and the writing is fast-paced. The plots are complex and unexpected. These are truly excellent books.
One writer who I think is overlooked in traditional fantasy, but whose books are excellent, is Jim Butcher. His Codex Alera books are wonderful fantasy and I think better than his Dresden books.
Kate Elliot’s Crown of Stars is another that I think will really stand the test of time. It’s epic and sprawling and the characters are compelling. I love these books.
And last on the traditional side is Lynn Flewelling and her Nightrunner books. Now this is a bit of a cheat, because she began the series in the 90s, but has been writing fresh books for them recently. They are wonderful. The world, characters and writing are rich and engaging.
I want to also mention some urban/contemporary fantasy that I think will stand the test of time.
First, I want to mention Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series. The books tell good stories, but they avoid cliché and are realistic and sometimes gut wrenching. The characters are compelling and I think people will be reading them for a long time to come.
Another is Sunshine by Robin Mckinley. As always, her writing is poetic. But this story is original and her vampires are truly unique and predatory. Her world is fabulous and this is a must read.
Last of all, I want to mention Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series. I love them. She has a badass heroine and a unique post-apocalyptic America. These are the epitome of good urban fantasy.
If I had to say there was one book that had become a classic, I’d say it would be Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora for its near perfect blend of the traditional and the unique. The idea of rogues as heroes isn’t quite new ground to break, but the idea of rogues that act and think like self-interested people trying to preserve their own hides, oddly enough, is. Lies is one of those books that is a mastery of blending: past and present, characters, conflicts and settings.
The adventure contained within is the sort of thing you recall quite clearly and can talk about as easily as if you were talking about your own. That, to me, is that hallmark of a classic.
Well, first of all, it’s worth noting that ‘classics’ never emerge strictly as a function of their inherent quality. Shakespeare wrote mind-bogglingly good plays, of course. But in order for them to become ‘classics’ – to continue to be read and revered over the centuries – a whole host of conditions having to do with culture and markets and history had to be in place. Lots of other mind-bogglingly good works that didn’t fare well vis-à-vis these conditions never became ‘classics’ – or they became ‘classics’ for a hundred years only to eventually be forgotten. One of my favorite novels, Moby Dick, languished in obscurity for many decades before it became a ‘classic,’ and since the late 20th century it’s been slipping out of the curriculum, so it may not stay a ‘classic.’ So I think of the question of ‘What will become a classic’ really breaks down to two smaller questions, the answers to which might not be the same titles – ‘Which fantasy novels are likely to be read fifty or a hundred or two hundred years from now?’ and ‘Which fantasy novels are so good that they deserve to be read and re-read for fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred years?’
As to the first question, I have to confess that I have no idea. Trends appear and disappear, some great books get printed in tiny editions, and other awful books get printed by the hundreds of thousands. Our culture is undergoing radical shifts as we speak, and trying to predict those shifts is a bit of a chump’s game. Even the physical way we read seems to be changing every few years. All of these factors, just as surely as the question of quality, will contribute to the question of which books stand the test of time, so I won’t claim to know where we’ll end up on that front.
As to which recent fantasy novels deserve to become classics, well…that’s obviously a pretty subjective question. One’s personal tastes are obviously going to determine one’s answers, and I have to admit to having pretty narrow tastes. Personally, I read sword and sorcery and heroic/epic fantasy almost exclusively. So while I’m sure there are some urban fantasy novels that will become classics, I have no idea which ones. But in my chosen subgenre, if we’re limiting ourselves to fantasy novels written in the past ten years – well, I’d have to go with two series: On the intellectually/sociologically chewier side of things, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. Rich characters, gorgeous prose, atypical, brilliantly evoked setting, multigenerational scope, innovative approach to the consequences of magic and war, economics as high drama. Stellar stuff, and enjoyable as hell, to boot. On the more popcorn-ish, sheer entertainment value side, Soctt Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastard sequence. Lynch infuses heroic fantasy with everything that’s satisfying about Hollywood at its best – snappy dialogue, cavalier derring-do, nail-biting plotting – without engaging in Hollywood stupidity.
For me, the sign of a classic Fantasy novel is that when I’ve finished reading it, my world geography and history have shifted to include the places and people of the created world. I’m so involved, so entranced, so sustained, that somewhere in my brain there exists a belief that it is all real.
This happened with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, with William Vollman’s You Bright and Risen Angels and with Margo Lanagan’s Tender Morsels (2008).
Margo has this magic touch with words. She doesn’t invent new ones, but the way she uses the old ones transports you to another place. She puts these words into the mouths of her characters so that they invade our own lives. Her ‘litlee-man’, truly abhorrent, who transforms trapped birds and plucked flowers into jewels, says, “I am foul and cruel. Let your friend take you back to Niceland, or Sweetland, or Lovey-Dove land, where you belong. Or sisters, is it, did you say? Don’t look like it. Poked of different dads, I’d say. Slut-mothered.”
I moved past the much-discussed violent opening of the book to where we really get to know the three women of the book and there, before long, I was lost in the world of bears, cliffs, litlee-men and the nature of sisterhood.
That’s why I reckon Tender Morsels will stand the test of time.
As pleased as I am to have been invited to take part in this Mind Meld, I confess that I wanted to argue with it. After all, we’ve encountered the issues surrounding canon formation, list building, and the anointment of classics in this field often enough — the gender and other biases that shape which books even get to be considered for such a position, never mind actually make it – that it needs to be approached with caution. And then there are the barriers: the last ten years only? And what do you mean by fantasy? And just one? Still, I do love these questions. They give us a chance to discuss different books and they are, at the end of it, fun to do. So hoping readers will forgive my presumption, here’s my response to the question.
It seems to me that there are a number of things that take a book and turn it into a classic. The book has got to be terrific, of course (our first, most subjective, factor). Something special. But that’s only the first ingredient, because we all could name books that should have been classics, or should become classics, but which we suspect in our own heart-of-hearts won’t for some reason. A book on its way to becoming a classic has to be more than good – it also has to be known. Reviewers, bloggers, academics, and critics can take a book and anoint it as a canonical work, something to be discussed and re-read when we attempt to understand the evolution of our field, but they cannot make turn a work it into a classic. A classic is a good book, hopefully a great one, but more than that it is a book that is read and re-read. And that brings us to the indefinable things about how a book becomes a true classic. Such a book is good, it’s read, but it’s also loved. If lightning strikes and all of those things happen, then a book has a grand chance of becoming a classic. Of course, there’s still luck. That plays a part too.
When I look back over the past ten years, which pretty much coincides with my residence as Reviews Editor at Locus, I can think of any number of fine fantasy books: novels, collections, anthologies, art and reference books. If there was any justice in the world Sean Stewart’s Mockingbird and Perfect Circle would both be considered classics, lauded throughout our field; Mary Gentle’s Ash too. I’m not sure they will be, though. As of this writing they seem to have eluded the readership they need to make it for the long haul (though I can always hope that might change). Or there’s a book like Susanna Clarke’s astounding Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell – a tour de force of a novel that I hope will always remain in print. However, for some reason, I think classic status might narrowly elude it.
I think the world if the world were a fairer place Graham Joyce’s powerful and moving The Facts of Life would be a classic, but I think it might too just miss out. There are others: Tim Powers’ Declare, Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels — I could go on and on, making a list of wonderful books that I’d eagerly recommend to anyone, but it doesn’t get us to my answer to the Mind Meld.
Ultimately, my answer can’t and shouldn’t be surprising. I spent some time arguing with myself over whether I thought Neil Gaiman’s Coraline would become a classic first, or whether it’s successor The Graveyard Book might beat it to the punch (I think they both stand a good chance). In the end I’m opting for Coraline. Why? Well first, Gaiman has one of the most inviting voices in modern fiction (at least to my ear). You want to read him. Coraline is also the first book where, I think, he really got the whole novel thing right. The story is gripping, the characters engaging, and you find yourself sucked into the creepy world of the Other Mother that he has created. It is a genuine masterwork and I don’t think it will ever date or fade or disappear. It has all of the hallmarks of becoming a genuine classic, and I think it will be read for generations to come.
So there, my pick for just one fantasy book from the past ten years that I think will become a classic. A good one, and one that I love. I do still hope that some of those other books might surprise me, though. I don’t think Neil would be saddened to see Jonathan Strange or Perfect Circle join Coraline on the bookshelf of future
classics that we are currently building.
I’m going to pick two short story collections actually, because I can’t decide between Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners and Jeffrey Ford’s The Empire Of Ice Cream. Link and Ford are, as far as I’m concerned, the best short story writers I know of writing at the moment. Both have incredible range. Both can go from the most charming and accessible tale — “The Faery Handbag” or “The Annals of Eelin-Ok” — to the most strange and estranging weirdness — “Lull” or “Giant Land.” Reading those books… to me that’s where fantasy’s at; Link and Ford show just how much you can do in the field. In terms of quality, I could as easily pick earlier collections of theirs, in truth — Link’s Stranger Things Happen or Ford’s The Fantasy Writer’s Assistant — except that the later collections just pip them to the post when it comes to personal preference. Partly, it’s on the strength of the title story in each; both “Magic for Beginners” and “The Empire of Ice Cream” are just awesome.
And as much as it’s a matter of wanting these to be classics, thinking they deserve to be, I genuinely reckon they had/have the impact necessary to make them classics, to keep them being talked about. Because that’s as much the question here as anything; it’s not just, “What’s your favourite book from the last decade?” but “What do you think people will still be talking about in 10, 20, 30 years time?” And I reckon both of those books will be remembered — deservedly so.
I’m going to start this by defining what I think classic means, because it’s a slippery word. I’m using in the context of “perfect example of a particular style.” With that in mind, I’m going to point to The Dresden Files. While it may not be fair to point to an entire series, it’s a perfect example of a fantasy hard boiled detective novel. In some ways, I think Stormfront, which came out in 2000, defined the bar in a new sub-genre. It’s one of those books that people tend to read and immediately want more of. Whether or not it will stay popular with future generations, which is a different definition of classic, is a question that we’d need a time machine to answer.
Elizabeth Hand’s novel Mortal Love (published by William Morrow in 2004) is an intense, compelling and stunningly written retelling of the Irish story of Blodeuedd. She is a woman conjured out of flowers, made by the hero Gwydion to wed his son, Llew Llaw Gyffes, who is cursed never to marry a mortal. When Blodeuedd meets the comely Gronw, the lady of flowers feels love and passion for the first time in her brief life. The two, equally enamored, plot to kill her husband. Gwydion revives his dead son with magic, kills Gronw, and turns Blodeuedd into an owl, to be shunned and harried by all other birds. (The tale is the focus of Alan Garner’s wonderful contemporary version The Owl Service.) Elizabeth Hand’s novel, shifting between the 19th and 20th centuries, follows Blodeuedd’s dangerous swath through history as love and muse, owl and flowers, the immortal force of myth inspiring hopeless mortal passion. She crosses the paths of poets, painters and novelists, trying to understand the artistic powers of humans, and leaving longing and confusion in her wake. Under the weight of myth, innocence becomes destructive, flowers become the owl’s claws, until she finally meets the one who, ravaged by her love, comes to understand her betrayal, and leaves her free to follow her immortal love.
This fantasy, astonishing both in vision and style, did not get the attention it deserved when it was first published. But I think it will be read and rediscovered for a long time. It is a brilliant example of what fantasy, at its heart, truly is: something old, something new, a very old tale told once again for the very first time.
Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!