I’ve wandered through a hundred books, searching for a good tale. What is it I am looking for in a story? More than entertainment (or I’d just switch on the TV). I want to have my reality replaced, redrawn. Reinvented. I want that sense of discovery. I want to become someone new. And so I search, for a touch of mystery, an edge of danger, a spark of intrigue and that doorway into the world beyond this world. I have yet to find all the elements I love in one book … which is probably why I’m a fantasy author myself. I write, to answer the need — to find the perfect fantasy story.
Along the way, I’ve come across some shining examples of fantasy. Terry Pratchett has a delightful take on story-telling. He softens his readers up with ten swift humours to the underbelly and then floors you with a slap of wit. He began with spoofing the whole genre; now most fantasy authors have disappeared behind the enviable effect of his big hat. His books have matured in recent years and have some very insightful themes and social commentary. He produces two Discworld books a year, at times. He’s a magician. The best of his works are Thief of Time, Monstrous Regiment and Thud! Because his books are self-contained and not really chronological, they make great light-hearted insertions between books from fantasy heavyweights.
Ursula le Guin has an amazing ability to make you feel immense anticipation for the thing that is just about to happen … and yet it never really happens. I can’t put my finger on how she does it, but even as I was disappointed by the lack of action in The Earthsea Quartet, I was enjoying her writing because I was intrigued all the way through.
For sheer scale and impact, I cannot ignore J.R.R. Tolkien. Strangely enough, I didn’t enjoy the Lord Of the Rings, at first. It’s a stodgy book to get through, and the plot dwells for so long on one story that when you return to the other plotlines you’re left wondering who the characters are. The four interchangeable hobbits have no distinct personality. But the scale of his creation, the world-building, is immense and fantastic, and I’ve probably read this book five or six times. It’s a strange, unforgettable work.
Then there’s Robin Hobb, a delightful writer who explores the feelings and relationships of her characters, everything that I felt was lacking in Tolkien’s saga-style of writing. Although I’ve found some of her tales a bit long-winded, The Farseer Trilogy is almost pitch-perfect.
When you’re in the mood for darker, tormented souls, Stephen Donaldson is a master. In The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, his characters grapple with deep psychological issues and there’s more to his story-weaving than just action-adventure. He’s also written some brilliant short stories. His treatment of magic is unsettling, as it should be. The next step along this dark and troubled road is R. Scott Bakker‘s Prince of Nothing.
I must mention Richard Bach in this discussion. He doesn’t write traditional fantasy, but who can tell where reality ends and magic begins? Like Paulo Coelho or Carlos Castenada, his fantasy is of a metaphysical kind. His books Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and Illusions changed the way I saw the world, they fired my belief in magic, they made dreams possible. Those two very short books are just beautiful.
And then I stumbled upon Charles de Lint‘s Memory and Dream, which is set in the modern world, but it has a timeless elegance; the classic story of an apprentice done incredibly well. It is dark and light and beautiful, with great insight into the artistic process. It took my breath away. I’m going to read a lot more by this man.
I’ve put together a hotlist of these and other fantasy stories on the Best Fantasy Novels page.
Every author mentioned has mastered an aspect of the perfect story. But when is someone going to weave all these elements together into one tale?
Well, that’s my inspiration! I’m done with waiting … I’m writing The Tale of the Lifesong.