Friday, January 15, 2016

Top 10 Fantasy Books

I had already made respective lists for science fiction and science fantasy – the mashup of science fiction and fantasy – books.  So it’s only right to complete a “trilogy” by doing another list, this time for fantasy literature.  This list is exclusively for “pure” fantasy – books that exclusively use fantasy elements and tropes.  If you’re wondering why an important “fantasy” property is missing in this list, check first my list for science fantasy books for it might be there.  Also, there are no horror books in this list for I don’t count horror as fantasy even if they have supernatural or fantastical elements (someday, I will make a list for them, too).

Nonetheless, I admit that this list will feel incomplete.  I know there are tons of notable works of fantasy that I haven’t read yet.  I’ve been meaning to read the Gormenghast series for years, but I can’t find a copy.  I enjoyed the TV mini-series, but I haven’t read the Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell novel yet.   I haven’t read a single The Wheel of Time book (I want to get into it at book one, which I’m having a difficult time of finding).  And I’ve yet to get into the hottest fantasy property these days, A Song of Ice and Fire.

Furthermore, the rankings of this list are dependent on my personal taste and on it alone.  So some of these books might be ranked higher or lower than their positioning in an “objective” all-time list for fantasy books.

10.) Redwall series by Brian Jacques

Once I got to read enough Redwall books, I found the plots and themes repetitive and thin.  Still, they are a delight to read.  Set in a fantasy, medieval world occupied by anthropomorphic critters, the books feature various tales from the history of Redwall Abbey, Mossflower Woods, and other surrounding places.

9.) Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Everyone knows Harry Potter.  It’s not only one of the most bestselling books of all time, but it’s also one of the biggest properties and fandoms ever – almost rivaling Star Wars’ (at least, before Force Awakens revived the franchise for the big screen).  It’s only fitting that it has a place in this list.

My personal experience with Harry Potter was a unique one.  I think it’s the only book series that I could literally say I grew up reading – from elementary until college.  However, this is also the only property in this list that I don’t have a single copy of in my library/collection (it’s likely I will purchase a full set in the future, but I’m not really compelled at the present to do so).  Still, I did get to read all of the books as soon as they were out, since I had classmates (Meg in elementary, and DY in high school and college) who were big fans and would buy a new title as soon as it was out.

I enjoyed reading all Harry Potter books, but I also have a couple of problems with them, and there are a few things that I think could have made the overall story better – much better – if they had been handled differently.  And though I think it’s pretty good overall, I also think it’s overrated.  Hence, despite its big reputation, it’s only number 9.

8.) Discworld series by Terry Brooks

What makes Discworld stand out from other fantasy literature is that it’s as much of a comedy as it is a fantasy.  The books are set in the titular Discworld, a world the shape of a flat disc situated on the backs of four elephants standing in turn on the back of the giant turtle Great A’Tuin.  That alone should give one an idea of how wonderfully absurd the Discworld books are.  Consisting of forty-one books (of which I’ve only read a small fraction), the series consistently lampoons various aspects touched by fantasy – from fairy tales to mythology to Tolkien to Lovecraft to Shakespeare – as well as science, politics, culture, and history.

7.) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Yep, I’ll be separating The Hobbit from The Lord of the Rings.  Since, despite being a sequel, the latter is a whole different animal in tone, style, and quality.  But that should come as no surprise since, if what I read before is right, Tolkien initially didn’t intend The Hobbit to have a sequel.  Thus, The Hobbit is really something essentially distinctive from LOTR.

To be honest, I was underwhelmed by this book when I first read it.  The reason was that I read LOTR first, which was far more superior.   Nevertheless, I still recognized its rich themes and charming “journey” plot (I love stories featuring characters on quests and travels) that I welcomed re-reading it a couple of times through the years, gaining more appreciation for it with each reading.

6.) American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The concept of American Gods is a brilliant one.  The novel features a world wherein mythological gods and creatures exist, and whose powers are dependent on people’s belief in them.  Throughout history, immigrants brought them over to American soil.  But as the modern period rolled in, people have already stopped believing in them.  Thus, these old gods have lost much of their powers.  In place, new gods have arisen, manifesting from modern America’s faith and devotion to TV, drugs, credit cards, technology, celebrity, etc.

The story centers on Shadow, an ex-con hired by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday – who is revealed later to be actually Odin of Norse myth (get it? Wednesday, Odin.  Clever) – and, as a result, became drawn to the middle of the conflict between the old gods and the new gods.

5.) Stardust by Neil Gaiman

There was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart’s Desire.

It’s one of my most favorite book intros, if not my most favorite, of all time.  Its beautiful wordings really produced an impact that not only perfectly encompasses the tone of the story but also resonates all throughout the book.

Stardust is the first Neil Gaiman novel I read, and yep, I really liked it more than American Gods (though I have to admit that I’ve only read both books once, and my thoughts about them might change during a second reading).  It has the ample elements that make fairy tales endearing, but is also told in a manner that makes it more purposeful, innovative, and exciting.

4.) The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen R. Donaldson

I don’t know about the concluding series, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant tetralogy, since I haven’t read it yet, but I found the first two trilogies to be powerful reading experiences.  Reading Thomas Covenant was my first encounter with “gritty” fantasy, as it has more mature and darker themes than the other fantasy books I had read and was used to at that point.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant focuses on a self-loathing writer named Thomas Covenant, who is left by his family and became a pariah in the society after contracting leprosy.  One day, he is magically transported into a magical alternate world called “The Land”, wherein he was prophesied to become its savior from a Devil analogue named Lord Foul, “The Despiser”.  However, due to his cynicism and bitterness, he refuses to believe that “The Land” is real, stubbornly insisting that this is merely a product of his delusions, thus, he adopts the title of “The Unbeliever”, and struggles on being the hero that he should be, even doing detestable acts (e.g. rape) in a likely attempt to reject the fate and reality that are being presented before him.

3.) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I credit this children’s book for getting me into novels.  Prior to this, I was already fond of reading, but exclusively on books with pictures like comics and encyclopedias.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is the first picture-less book (my copy didn’t have any illustrations) I finished reading, and is the prime reason I fell in love with literature.

Through the years since I first read it, I’ve re-read it a couple of times (it’s one of the books that I’ve re-read the most times), and every time I do so, I’m enchanted by its charming madness and fun narrative almost as much as the first time I read it.

2.) The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

Ah, we come to the mother of all fantasy.  In many ways, The Lord of the Rings defined fantasy – particularly high fantasy – as we know of today.  It laid the groundwork of many elements of the genre, and many fantasy authors have patterned their work to it.

The Lord of the Rings is not only a terrific story – which it is; it’s a very, very terrific story – but more than that, it has probably the richest, most detailed worldbuilding in fiction.  Exploring its mythology and background history is almost as immersive and fascinating as the story itself.

LOTR is the ultimate fantasy experience.  It’s a timeless, grand epic that pleasurably entices readers’ imagination to reach new heights.

1.) The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Immensely fantastic LOTR might be, Narnia has a slight advantage in my heart.  There has never been any other author like Lewis that is able to organically and delightfully incorporate theological overtones to its narrative.  Thus, it not only makes for enjoyable fiction but also for thoughtful reflections as well.

Narnia is a prime case study of Lewis’ thesis of “likening” – the role of fantasy stories to liken aspects of reality to what it is not to reveal much more deeply to what reality is – and Beyond!  By weaving tales about children dragged into a fantasy world of mythological creatures and Talking Animals, Lewis awakens the readers – particularly children – to important questions and truths of the reality we’re in and what lies Beyond it.  Thus, for accomplishing something like this, Lewis became my most favorite writer of fiction ever, and Narnia, not only the best children’s book I’ve ever read, but the best work of fantasy as well.

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