My Top Eight Favorite Fantasy Authors of All Time
I love fantasy stories. I had to make a choice early in my life as to whether I’d be a sci-fi buff or a fantasy geek, and Conan the Barbarian beat Star Wars for the primacy of my heart (sorry, Christian). I do love sci-fi as well, but I think most people lean a bit one way or the other, and I for one lean towards the Ian McKellan in a wizard hat versus the Patrick Stewart in a onesie. My own writing has generally geared towards fantasy (the other times it’s horror, or a mashup like Troius – one day I’ll do this post about horror writers), so I decided I would list my favorite fantasy authors of all time, those folks who have been influential and aspirational to me not only as a writer but as a human being.
1. J.R.R. Tolkien
The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales
I mean, this is probably not a surprise to anyone who has ever engaged me in conversation or read anything I have to say. I have broached Tolkien a time or two on this here blog. He will likely never be topped on my list, even though I don’t really use him as an inspiration for my own works (I tend to prefer a bit more grey than Good v Evil, since the idea that everyone thinks they’re the good guy in their own story is one that appeals to my cynical nature), but the world that he built, the beauty and elegance and intricate details and history and theology and the rest, is something that in my mind may never be topped. Other authors may be more exciting, or grimdark, or action oriented, or whatever, but for my money no one will ever replace Tolkien as the most beloved fantasy author of all time. I have a lot of problems with the movies (especially the Hobbit), but they are still beautiful and tell a wonderful story, and the best parts of them are when the scenes and story hew close to the source material. Even though the Hero’s Journey is one often dismissed as a cliche, and Manwe knows a million Tolkien imitators have beaten it into the ground, there remains the fact that Frodo, the hero who makes it all the way to Mount Doom, fails his quest in the end, and the world is delivered from evil not by the hand of the Chosen One but by a villain. Put that in your cliche pipe and smoke it.
Oh, and Michael Moorcock? Shut the fuck up. When Elric is a cultural touchstone for nearly a century and has films making eleventy-billion dollars, go ahead and talk about over-rated Tolkien is. Asshat.
(Also, Michael Moorcock almost made this list because he’s pretty damn good too. But fuck him in the ear anyway.)
2. Steven Erikson
The Malazan Book of the Fallen, The Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas
Take Tolkien’s ability to build a world, add George R R Martin’s political intrigue, throw in some of Glen Cook’s military fantasy excellence, swirl it with a dash of humor, and you end up with Steven Erikson. As a former anthropologist, he brings an unmatched level of realism and plausibility to the races and nations of the world, giving the place a vibrancy and believability that is really second to no one I’ve ever read.
And unlike some others I could mention but won’t because it would be rude (George R R Martin and Robert Jordan), HE FINISHED HIS FUCKING SERIES IN A REASONABLE AMOUNT OF TIME. His first was published in 1999, and the tenth and last was published in 2011. Compare that to Jordan (14 novels, 1990 to 2013 and he fucking DIED before finishing it) and Martin (5 novels, 1996 to ETERNITY since they will never ever be done). Seriously, Erikson fucking produced. There was no filler, no multi-page stories of feasts, no sipping tea and adjusting skirts, no bullshit. Just ten self-contained books that all happen to converge and create one epic fucking storyline. If Steven Erikson never wrote anything again, his Malazan series is the fucking mic drop. That doesn’t even go into the brilliance of the novellas. Seriously, go fucking read him.
3. P.C. Hodgell
The Kencyr novels
There is a legitimate shortage of good fantasy stories featuring strong women characters, which is a shame because that limits the potential audience for an entire genre and denies half the human race of representation through this particular art. P.C. Hodgell is one of the few that I’ve read that tells a rip-roaring fantasy tale that just so happens to have a female protagonist and makes it seem like it’s no big deal. Her world is chaotic and strange and very atypical in a genre of Middle Earth 5.0s, the action is fun and wild and grim and savage and delightful all at once. Jamethiel, the main character is as wild and unpredictable as the world she’s in, and while the first couple of volumes have a very Fritz Leiber feel to them (which is not an insult: see entry #6 on this list), after that the stories become very much unlike everything else in the genre. Read them, I beg you.
And one more hint of my love for Hodgell: my most prized possession is my rapier, which is named, of course, Jamethiel.
4. Glen Cook
The Black Company series, The Garrett, P.I. novels
Glen Cook was the first fantasy author I read that used modern vernacular in fantasy works, and I still think he is one of the finest at making a fantasy world sound and feel like someplace outside my own door, provided there were immortal sorcerers and demons and other cool shit on the other side. He also was the first military fantasy author I read and reading about the campaigns and reading about bitching soldiers and the grind, not glory, of war was a revelation to me. His Garrett P.I. stories are just as good, a mashup of detective noir and fantasy that makes me feel good about having done a mashup of fantasy and horror except without the, whaddaya call it, success.
5. Steven Brust
The Vlad Taltos series, the Khaavren Romances, To Reign in Hell
Man, it’s hard to imagine Steven Brust all the way down at number 5. Like Cook, he uses modern vernacular and a noirish feel for the Taltos series, about a human assassin living in a world dominated by, for all intents and purposes, elves, and weaves such amazing self-contained stories (published out of order, which makes for a fun ride) that I get angry about how easy he makes it seem. The Khaavren Romances, on the other hand, are stories in the same world written in the style of Dumas – complete with forewards from the fictional author of the romances – that are so fucking funny and exciting and delightful that I actually like them more than the Vlad books – which is a hell of a lot. Plus he’s written my favorite book about Christian mythology ever, To Reign in Hell, which tells the story of the Biblical Fall from the Devil’s point of view and is utterly spectacular.
6. Fritz Leiber
The Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, Conjure Wife
One of the original sci-fi fantasy horror juggernauts. It makes me sad that this man, whose work forms the underpinnings of so many great fantasy works that came after – even including a profound influence on Dungeons and Dragons – is not better known and loved. His books can be hard to find, but any story about lovable fantasy rogues at least deserve a tip of the cap to Leiber. Do yourself a favor, if you have not done so before, and catch up with his work.
7. Sir Thomas Malory
Le Morte d’Arthur
No, he didn’t invent King Arthur. He didn’t even make up most of the stories, if he made up any at all. But he did do one thing, and that was take all the tales and try to make them roughly coherent and package them in one work, which wasn’t easy considering it was the FIRST major work of English language prose and he was in prison at the time. The fact that he was actually a knight and brigand and then put together one of the most enduring works of fiction only makes him that much cooler. The doomed hero, the prophesy of his return, the Golden Age left behind due to violence and betrayal – the story has a resonance that carries it forward for millenia, and I’m grateful that Malory helped keep it alive for us to enjoy.
8. George R. R. Martin
The Never-Ending Story of a Song of Ice and Fire
Oh, George. At one time he was #2 on this list. His grey outlook and violent penchant for killing off characters made me adore him. A fantastic world, great characters, a gripping story – it seemed like there was no way he could do wrong.
Well, he figured out a way.
5 novels in 19 years. And the last two were so bloated and sedentary that they made George look healthy. I’m sure the fact that he is on the verge of falling off this list entirely ala Robert Jordan keeps him up at night, forcing him to bathe in his hoard of platinum coins to calm himself. Added to the fact that HBO is actually doing a better job telling his story for him and ole George is clinging to this list by his Littlefinger.
His Tuf Voyages stories are pretty fucking great though.
Other Author Rankings:
19. Robert Jordan
I am vowing to make myself HARDER THAN STEEL while I mope and sulkily allow my three girlfriends who are all totally cool with the fact that I’m in love with all of them and who all kinda in love with each other too to chase me around and trick me into bed with them. Also, I will dabble my fingers in my tea while smoothing my skirts because I am sweeter than honey.
Congratulations, you have now read the Wheel of Time.
1767. Your Three-Year-Old Niece
1768. David Eddings.
Fuck you, Sparhawk.