I’ve seen a lot of discussion on various blogs about “must read” lists, so I figured I’d make one of my own. To give a preface: I like dark stories with twists and turns that make sense, but that I didn’t see coming. I enjoy flawed but likeable characters, and ALWAYS prefer my stories to involve intelligent characters facing intelligent antagonists. Having said that, and in no particular order, here are the books I recommend whole-heartedly, and the authors I wish I were half as good as (links on author’s names go to their official website; links on individual books go to its amazon.com page):
1. George RR Martin: A Song of Ice and Fire series (currently out so far: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast For Crows, and A Dance With Dragons, with two upcoming: The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring) – This is the series that changed fantasy forever for me. It breaks all the previous rules of fantasy, and completely changed my perspective on what fantasy could – and should – be. Mr. Martin keeps you on the edge of your seat through the books, and emotionally involved in the lives of the characters in the series; there was one point in the third book where I literally threw the book across the room, I was so pissed at the events (of course, I quickly picked it back up to find out what happened next). With main characters – in some cases, characters you think of as THE main character – being killed, there is always the question of who will survive the next chapter, let alone to the end of the series. One warning: this series is not for everyone, and certainly not for children. In the first fifty pages of the first book, there is attempted infantcide and incest – and true evil isn’t seen until the second book!
2. Joe Abercrombie: the First Law trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged, and Last Argument of Kings), with two solo books set in the same world (Best Served Cold and The Heroes) – The First Law trilogy was a brilliant story filled with twists and turns that both surprised you and made perfect sense in retrospect. The second book was nothing but a giant twist, with what felt like a typical quest set-up. I liken it to Fight Club – when I watched Fight Club, I wondered why I was bothering to do so…until the end. At which point, the whole thing gelled, and I was amazed at how awesome the movie became. I’ve since re-watched it over and over again, loving every scene with the perspective of knowing the meaning behind it. Mr. Abercrombie also brings his characters back in future books. Main characters in previous books will become supporting characters in future books, and we’ll be introduced to the main characters of the future books as supporting characters in the previous books. This creates a world that is tightly connected, with books that are able to stand alone. My absolute favorite book was Best Served Cold, in which a betrayed general seeks her revenge, going through the planning and execution of said revenge, as well as dealing with the consequences of her actions.
3. Patrick Rothfuss: The Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy (currently out: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, with one upcoming: The Doors of Stone) – If I were to pick one author to be able to mimic his writing abilities, it would be Patrick Rothfuss. His word choice is strong and poetic, his story plot is realistic and interesting, and his characters are alive in the words on the page. He does take a while to complete his books (it took four years between the first and second book), but the wait is truly worth it. I would (and probably will) gladly (if impatiently) wait another four years for the third book, if that’s what it takes to get such a masterpiece. In the meantime, I can read his blog posts, which are a delight in and of themselves.
4. Scott Lynch: the Gentleman Bastard series (currently out: The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, with five upcoming: Republic of Thieves, The Thorn of Emberlain, The Ministry of Necessity, The Mage and the Master Spy, and Inherit the Night) – The Lies of Locke Lamora is my all-time favorite book, bar none. It is the story of a con artist in a fantasy setting, which are two of my favorite kinds of stories. The characters – both the protagonists and the antagonists – are intelligent and resourceful, and the battle of wits fought through the book is both entertaining and exciting. It switches back and forth between the protagonists’ training as children and how they put that training into action in the present. The second book, while still an excellent read, didn’t live up to the standard set by the first book – though mostly, I didn’t care for the nautical section of the book, and feel that the third and subsequent books will easily recapture the quality of the first book.
5. Tad Williams: The Sorrow, Memory, and Thorn series (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower: Part 1 and Part 2) and the Shadowmarch series (Shadowmarch, Shadowplay, Shadowrise, and Shadowheart) – No one can create a sense of mystery, majesty, and awe like Tad Williams, and his two fantasy series display this better than any other. Set in different worlds, the two series are none-the-less full of rich histories, likeable characters, and exotic settings – and his description of each takes your breath away. Like visiting the Grand Canyon, you feel like you are in the presence of something larger-than-life, and he always leaves you wanting more.
6. Jim Butcher: the Dresden Files series (currently out: Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rights, Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, White Knight, Small Favor, Turn Coat, and Changes, with the anthology Side Jobs, and upcoming: Ghost Story, Cold Days, and many more) and the Codex Alera series (Furies of Calderon, Academ’s Fury, Cursor’s Fury, Captain’s Fury, Princep’s Fury, and First Lord’s Fury) – Mr. Butcher is an extremely prolific author, putting out multiple books a year for the last several years, as well as several short stories. He has an extremely strong sense of continuity that doesn’t interfere with the story. Far from it, he is capable of building on what’s come before to create greater and greater stories. While the first books in each of his series were good, each subsequent story gets better and better. Now, I find myself chomping at the bit for each new release – and given how quickly he writes them, it also means I don’t have to wait too long for the next installment!
7. Nick Harkaway: The Gone Away World – Mr. Harkaway only has one book out, but it is a must read for everyone. Alternately deadly serious and extremely humorous, Mr. Harkaway refuses to be catagorized. A science-fiction post-apocalyptic setting (created after a reality-destroying wa) involving ninjas, fantasy creatures, and a mime troop, it almost seems as if he picked topics out of a hat and just made them all fit into the puzzle somehow – and yet, they DO fit. It is a wild ride that is both fun and speaks to the heart of our own world and how it works. It jumps you right into the middle of the story, which is rather confusing, given the unusual setting of the book, but then backs up the story to give you a full explanation of how the world became the way the initial chapter describes. Of course, about two-thirds of the way through the book, it catches up with those initial events, and almost immediately throws you for another loop that makes you question everything you’ve just read – don’t worry, this too will be be explained to perfect satisfaction by the end.
8. Timothy Zahn: the Conquerors trilogy (Conquerors’ Pride, Conquerors’ Heritage, and Conquerors’ Legacy) – No one can do a story with twists and turns better than Timothy Zahn, and nowhere does he do it better than with the Conquerors’ trilogy. With incredibly intelligent characters who must think their way to survival, nothing is ever what it seems with this series. The first book is from the perspective of the human empire, the second from that of the aliens, and the third is a mix of the two. For someone who prefers fantasy to science fiction, I absolutely love this series and feel it ranks up there with the best fantasy stories out there (hence why it’s on this list!)
9. Roger Zelazney: the Chronicles of Amber series (first series: Nine Princes of Amber, The Guns of Avalon, Sign of the Unicorn, The Hand of Oberon, and The Courts of Chaos, and the second series: Trumps of Doom, Blood of Amber, Sign of Chaos, Knight of Shadows, and Prince of Chaos) – while each book is less than 200 pages appiece, each book is filled with so much world-changing detail that I’m amazed Mr. Zelazney was able to fit a story into the pages. Each book drastically changes your entire view of the world crafted. Yet not only is there a story, it’s a captivating one filled with imagination and intrigue.
10. Neil Gaiman: American Gods and its sequel Anansi Boys, and the Sandman comic book series – Mr. Gaiman deals with the fringe of society and reality in his stories, focusing on the oppressed and discriminated against. Mr. Gaiman also incorporates classics such as Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in such a way that scholars of these works have been amazed by his interpretation within the bounds of his own story (and that nonscholars such as myself have found enjoyable in and of themselves). The Sandman series in particular holds a special place in my heart – enough so that, while I love comic books and could write a post about the comics everyone should read, I felt this series belonged in a general fantasy must reads list.
11. Orson Scott Card: Ender’s Game – This book, above all his others, was absolutely brilliant. I did enjoy the rest of the Ender series (Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind), they had a completely different feel to them – no longer focusing on the child genius involved in a military academy, but focusing on the man he became (who was opposed to such military actions, and as such had a more political than military bent to the story). While the follow-up series focusing on Bean started strong with Ender’s Shadow, the rest of the series quickly became too preachy for my tastes. Still, the first book in each series (Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow) is a must read for anyone who enjoys intelligently written characters with an knack for military tactics. (I should also mention that I’m intrigued by the Tales of Alvin Maker series, but have yet to find the time to get into the series – it may be another series by Orson Scott Card that I’ll add to the must read list, but obviously not until after I’ve read it.)
12. John Steakley: Armor – This book has a setting almost identical to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Trooper book, though after reading Armor, one gets the impression that Starship Trooper was the propaganda, whereas Armor was the grim reality. The story immediately hooked me, though a third of the way through the book there is an abrupt change that almost caused me to stop reading. That would’ve been a massive mistake, however, as it did get my attention back and some of the best parts are after that switch in the story.
and from my childhood, the series that got me into fantasy:
1. C. S. Lewis: the Chronicles of Narnia series (the order I read them in: The Magician’s Nephew, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Horse and His Boy, Prince Caspian, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Silver Chair, and The Last Battle) – This series was the first fantasy story I ever read. In point of fact, my mother read the first two books to me as I was learning to read, and then promptly told me that if I wanted to know the rest of the story, I would have to read the rest myself. I devoured them, and have generally had my nose stuck in a book ever since.
2. J. R. R. Tolkein: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Fellowship of the Rings, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King) – amusingly, as a child, I didn’t care as much for this story as I did for the Chronicles of Narnia. Now grown, I enjoy Mr. Tolkein’s books more. Of course, I don’t consider them to be as good a quality as the aforementioned must reads – but that’s with the understanding that none of the books on my must read list would exist without the efforts of Mr. Tolkein, and as such, I have a great respect for what he did – I would just prefer to read what has come after these days. (I know, I know – sacrilege! but it’s how I feel, and I won’t apologize for liking what I do.)
3. Lloyd Alexander: The Chronicles of Prydain series (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King) – This was my absolute favorite series growing up, and will always hold a special place in my heart. I own two copies of these books, so I can give one to my nephews when they’re old enough to read them, and one to jealously keep only to myself.
4. Dilwyn Horvat: Operation Titan and Assault on Omega 4 – While they’re Christian YA novels (and both out-of-print and hard to find), I enjoyed them greatly in my youth. The idea of a persecuted, secret organization of knights in a futuristic setting with energy swords and shields really struck a chord with me, and the stories were more complex and exciting than any other I read around the same time.
I’ve read many others, and I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are what I consider to be the best of the best of fantasy and science fiction. (I should note: many of the authors above have written more books than are listed – I only included the series and books that I thought were their best, though in some cases that’s simply because I haven’t read everything else the authors have written…) Oh, and next up on my list to read (after I’ve finished catching up on the above series – I’m currently in the middle of GRRM’s latest, A Dance With Dragons) is R. Scott Bakker‘s The Prince of Nothing series. I’ve read the first book, The Darkness That Comes Before, and thoroughly enjoyed it, but want to read the rest of it before I post it as a must read or not (though I have every confidence it’ll be on future lists once I’ve finished reading it…) Also on my list of read next is John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War, Simon R. Green‘s Something from the Nightside, and Christian Cantrell‘s Containment.
So what’s on your list of must reads and read nexts?