Top Ten Best Fantasy Series

Writers draw inspiration from one another. Our creativity is a spark all its own and the best need nothing but the kindling of their own thoughts for fuel, but it’s a fact: a writer, every bit as much as the average reader, is inspired by their peers.

The other day I was poked, prodded and more generally had my interest piqued by a friend demanding that I slap together a list of my favorite fantasies. “There’s fifteen billion such lists on the Internet already,” I cried, but he persisted. It would be interesting to see, he insisted, the reasoning behind a writer’s choice for choosing other writers. To see from where they themselves draw inspiration. I have decided to acquiesce. Thus, without further ado, I present to you a top 10 list of the best fantasy series currently out there, in my humble opinion. This does not include Stand Alones…a separate list might come about for that later. We shall see.

Note: none of these are ranked against one another. This is simply a general TOP TEN—within, they are for all intents and purposes of this list, as equals.

  1. A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
The book fans have been waiting for...

The book fans have been waiting for…

Write like the wind, Martin. What the song doesn’t build enough on, of course, is the reason we want him to write like the wind (and the reason legions are incensed he hasn’t). Martin has left an indelible mark on the fantasy genre, forever engrained within it the notion of the dark or “realistic”—the idea that fantasy needn’t be romantic to be escapist.

A Song of Ice and Fire is a masterpiece of storylines which get more and more intricate with time, and what’s more, its character range the spectrum of class, color and creed to such a degree you cannot help but find someone, somewhere in which you’re going to become invested.

  1. THE PRINCE OF NOTHING
One of Bakker's gems.

One of Bakker’s gems.

Gives me shudders every time I read it. The Prince of Nothing series, by R. Scott Bakker is a perfect blending of philosophic nihilism and gritty, realistic fantasy. He takes what Martin began and twists the blade into still deeper, darker places, while provoking thought and reflection over the human condition and the horrible things people will do to one another. It’s not a series you’ll come out of feeling all roses and sunshine, but rather as though you’ve gone through the Slog of Slogs (relevancy points), conquered, and become all the more fascinated for it in how the world shall end.

The Prince of Nothing also handles magic in such a devastatingly destructive manner. It is unique, particularly in its intrinsic mix into the battlefield and the different forms the various schools adapt.

  1. TALES OF THE BLACK COMPANY

When all else fails, there will still be the Black Company.

The slogan holds true. The Black Company goes through some serious pitfalls. That’s because this series perhaps kickstarted the whole realistic fantasy genre, and while it has not had the widespread cultural phenomena impact of Martin’s books, it certainly inspired them. The series is predicated on one notion: war is messy, it’s terrible, and everything about it goes quickly to hell; beyond that, it’s all shades of grey.

It’s action-packed, and unique in that we are given legion for characters—we have main characters, to be sure, but the Black Company ITSELF nearly acts as its own, separate character, an interwoven, realistic mass of toiling personalities all pushing forward the greater whole in one way or another. The characters are soldiers. They don’t wish-wash so much as fling themselves from one hard decision to another, and their honor code often trumps morality, lending a curious dynamic and food for thought on the righteous of war—ANY war.

Plus, as with The Prince of Nothing, it shows how magic would actually, likely be used in the real world. The grandiose gesture, the nascent trickery, it’s all there, but the Company and its enemies use it in a manner conducive to war, to survival—not unlimited power, but an extra trick used in conjunction with traditional tactics to gain a leg-up on one’s enemy.

  1. CHRONICLES OF AMBER

Team Corwin. To hell with Merlin.

Sorry, I’m opinionated—isn’t that the whole point of this piece?

The Chronicles of Amber is quirky fantasy at its best. Scheming family, silly twists, endless plotting and planehopping; this tale is the tale of order versus chaos, complete with allusions to Shakespeare and quantum mechanics. It is also the tale of one man’s unfortunately insatiable need to keep spawning more children. Seriously, Oberon.

This series is, to put it simply, fun. There is scarcely a dull moment and the characters are so enjoyable it’s difficult to cast aside from them, even as they make some rather poor decisions.

  1. THE KINGKILLER CHRONICLES

Has the third day dawned yet, Patrick Rothfuss?

First off, let me get a few things out of the way. The Kingkiller Chronicles does nothing other fantasy novels haven’t done before it. It’s a coming of age tale, it’s a doom on the horizon tale, it’s a quest tale. What Patrick reveals, however, is it’s HOW a book is done, not what is it about that makes it what it is.

Patrick weaves prose together in a fashion that makes my heart beat like a first year English student at a poetry reading. It is musical, elegiac, a true bard’s tale with a narrator that is at once unreliable, fascinating and altogether human (despite his heroic tales) for the former. It also carries us into a character’s head in a fashion matched and surpassed, perhaps, only by the writings of Robin Hobb. I’m among the many that felt the second book didn’t live up to the first, but I suspect that second to simply be suffering from “middle child” syndrome, and have great faith the third will wrap up nicely what the first book began.

  1. LORD OF THE RINGS
An iconic image for us all, to be sure...

An iconic image for us all, to be sure…

It happened. It’s a classic. It’s the thing from which all other fantasy works can claim ancestry. Without it, neither I, nor any other modern fantasist would likely be scribbling in quite the same way. Moving right along…

  1. HARRY POTTER

How could I not include the boy wizard? If for no reason more than the fact that he and Rowling revitalized and inspired the imagination and fantasy for a new generation, this series deserves a permanent place in anyone’s top ten.

  1. EARTHSEA CYCLE

When I think of Ursula K. LeGuin, I tend to think of her bountiful contributions to the Sci-Fi realm, but she has also made a lasting impression on the world of Fantasy as well. With Earthsea, she takes the coming of age story, and the wizard saves the world story, and casts both into a nautical story that really set the foundations for the modern obsession with the wizard school staple.

What it lacks in the, say, complexity of modern fantasy, it makes up for in perspective, and offers us plenty of meaning to cradle at night. Each book in the Earthsea cycle prods at some of the great struggles of the human condition—writing wrongs we ourselves created, a fight for identity, the struggle to overcome death. The story may be familiar to many of us nowadays, who bask in the legion of copiers, but Ursula shows what traditional fantasy should look like.

  1. THE TAWNY MAN TRILOGY

Character. Character. Character.

It is the hallmark of Robin Hobb and oh, no one does it quite like her. It was a hard fight, it must be said, to choose between her series for this one. Yet in the end I had to give it to Tawny Man. A continuation from the Farseer Trilogy and a prelude to her current series, the Tawny Man brought us the character of Fitz in an older point of his life and engaged more heavily with the Fool, who should hold a special place in the hearts of any reader of Robin Hobb’s works.

Robin shows that story—which is still a strong component of her stories—needn’t always trump character. Through the person of Fitz, she has demonstrated that if you can pull us into the mind of a character, we will follow you wherever you lead us, treat his troubles as our troubles, long to see wherever else his journey will lead. Fitz has been with us since childhood, and carries us into old age, and is perhaps one of the best, most fleshed out characters in fantasy history.

Robin shows the art of personality in writing. I would stand up in front of any English class and point to her Fitz, her Fool, as case-and-points of how to craft a human.

  1. THE LONG PRICE QUARTET

The beginning of a unique tale…

Let me begin by saying this: The Long Price Quartet is not, in any sense, standard fantasy. Not the modern kind. Not the classic kind. It truly is its own concoction.

These books aren’t about the action. In the first book there isn’t even a soldier or battle sequence to be found. They aren’t about epic, good or evil, world-ending monstrosity versus legions of paladins.

It’s a story, plain and simple, without excess, moved along by fully realized characters breathing life into a strong plot. They are flawed, they are at points strong and weak in turn, and it is the convergence of their moralities, decisions and consequences which shape not only their own character, but the nature of two worlds: one clinging desperately to the past, one marching steadily toward a new foundation.

Game of Thrones Season 1 Review

Thrones, Dragons and a whole lot of scowling.

(In case you’d like the audio version: Game of Thrones Review)

If you weren’t hiding under a rock for the past year, chances are you’ve caught the hype revolving around HBO and its touted adaptation of popular fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” – by George R.R. Martin.

Well, the season’s done now, and I think I can safely say any viewer’s anxiously awaiting Spring 2012. This first season certainly took us on an action-packed romp through Westeros, delivering us fast-paced storytelling, sound acting, and the usual quality of HBO writing. Sure there were only ten episodes, but the sheer breadth of what they covered would leave any sane man gasping for more.

Through this season we’ve scrambled through the twists and turns of revenge, medieval politics, and war, and all through the eyes of fascinatingly layered characters. It’s not your fantasy of Elves and Dwarves, no sir—this is your high class modern fantasy, by which I mean dark, brooding, and bloody. It’s all humans, save the looming threat of some undead nasties, and that honestly helps to endear it. The characters don’t rely on fantastical gimmicks or endless hordes of CGI to make us love them. They are raw humanity in its purest (and often ugliest) form.

Yet to be honest, going in, this was one of those shows I wasn’t sure if I would love or hate. I’m a fan of the books. I’ve read them all (and am waiting rather anxiously for the fifth book to FINALLY come out). I’ve seen a lot of books turned into terrible visual pieces—so I had my reservations. But while 10 episodes left a lot the finer details rushed, the show executed itself well over all.

For starters, the production values were top of the line, as we’ve come to expect from HBO programming. The men behind the cameras knew what they were doing, and the cinematography is spot-on. The locales of Westeros were distinct, as were the people in them, and the breadth and culture of a world breathed rather effortlessly through the screen.

As I’ve already mentioned, the characters themselves were beautifully rendered. Sean Bean, of course, was at the top of his game as Eddard Stark, patriarch of the Stark family, and Peter Dinklage shone as everyone’s favorite sassy “ Imp” Tyrion Lannister. But one would expect the big names to do well—it was the smaller names that really set the bar. The Starks—Maisie Williams as Arya, Sophie Turner as Sansa, Michelle Fairley as Catelyn—all delivered spot-on performances in that regard. I think I can safely say it was Emilia Clarke’s breakaway performance and traceable growth as the indomitable Daenerys Targaryen that really takes the cake (and made silver hair look damn fine too). Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) also was startlingly delivered, here, particularly because they got one hell of a creepy kid to play him, with an act that was no less than menacing.

The series, like the books it shadows, didn’t pull any punches, either. Much as you might gasp for Ned not to go through that door…the finale makes it very clear he’s not coming back from his wrong guess. Blood and sex were the order of the day (including one rather overt lesbian scene that I can only attribute to producers screaming “Look at me, I’m edgy!”), and the cameras didn’t shy away from the nasty.

The book fans have been waiting for…

But speaking as a fan of the books, there were some adaptations I didn’t quite agree with, and I’ll freely admit they color my perceptions a touch. First of all—Cersei as a sort of sympathetic character? Where the bloody did that come from? If you know anything about the books, you know the rather sinister queen is about the farthest one could get from “sympathetic”—power-hungry, arrogant, and utterly self-consumed. Yet the show often toned down the evil in her, playing up a mystery lost child, one-time love for her husband, and a hearty dose of respect for her rival that seems…off. To each their own interpretations, I suppose, but she’s certainly not the Cersei I know.

And where the hell was Rickon? The youngest Stark child never had a big to-do in the books, but he certainly had more than a couple cameo shots. Given, you can’t give equal screen to everybody, but one would be hard-pressed to recall the child until the final episode.

While most of the crucial scenes literary fans would be looking for were there—and delightfully pursued, if I might say so—there were a lot of other scenes you might have expected that simply weren’t. Flashbacks, for example. In the books of course, we get to spend time in the characters’ heads, so pursuing a few leaps in time is a little easier…but even so, I would have liked to have seen some of the history up close on the screen. The battle at the tower of joy, for example. The whole sub-plot of Ned’s sister. Even touches of the battle on the trident that…you know, guaranteed Robert’s kingship and all.

Some of the added scenes, while useful, were also less than thrilling, coming off as little more than fluff pieces. It’s perplexing just how many characters chose to give us self-insight through whores, for example. No, seriously.

But hey, the series also developed a few arts of its own, which we can all take a lesson from in the future. Like the art of censoring via dragons. Personally, I think it’s an art form that doesn’t get enough attention. I blame the media.

In conclusion: it’s not the book, but I don’t think it really set out to be. What Game of Thrones does, it does very well, with high production values, solid acting, and a wealth of characterization, culture, and dialogue. While fans of the books will find flaws to harp on (as I did), and the series can feel a bit rushed at points, overall it delivered the quality we would hope for, and delivered a healthy shot in the arm for the visual fantasy genre—because let’s face it, fantasy’s popular as literature, but we’re sorely lacking on the TV scene.

Putting it to the stars, I’d give the first season a 4 out of 5 in the end. Hopefully the second season will maintain the momentum.

Lord knows the blood pool’s going to deepen.

(Enjoyed what you read? Join the discussion and keep up to date on the latest happenings at my Facebook page!)

Winter is Coming

The day may still be a year away, but HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s popular fantasy novel series A Song of Fire and Ice has never felt closer.

Last week, a new teaser trailer (the first) was released, showing several scenes from the show and getting all trippy on us. It doesn’t reveal much, just a few glimpses here and there of things we can gleefully anticipate.

The first season will revolve around the first novel in the series, and all seasons thereafter will follow the same theory. Martin has seven books planned for the series (though fans are still biting their nails over a five-year wait on the fifth book: A Dance with Dragons).

The story takes place in the mythical land of Westeros, and follows the story of the noble but intensely unfortunate Stark family, who become intricate parts of the gathering intrigue and drama of the land when the King draws the Stark patriarch, Eddard (played by Sean Bean) in to be his closest advisor. People squabble for the throne, characters fall, and in the midst of it all, the once semi-peaceful land devolves into war-torn madness.

The script for the show is written and produced by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, with Thomas McCarthy (at least at present) directing. The cast will also play host to a number of fairly well-known names, including Sean Bean, Peter Dinklage and Lena Headey, amongst others.

The series is going to be filled with necessary pretties, and some serious cash will have to be invested in visual effects—given that we have got dragons, magic, and even giant wolves running around Westeros, all waiting for their moment on the screen. The show is said to be more “character-centric,” but we’ll see how that turns out.

The series is set to premiere in Spring, 2011, barring setbacks. And by god, there better not be setbacks.

(And yes, I know, geek points for me, since I posted this on both my blogs. I’ll live.)

E-Readers

The Kindle

The Kindle. The I-pad.  The more time comes and goes, the more of these electronic goodies come prancing onto the market place. Book sales are at a terrible low, profits made only worse by the war raging between the motley crew of national bookstores left and the online sellers like Amazon.com.

So the question I ponder today is: what is the future of literature? The Kindle costs over $200, but if you are a voracious reader, you’re easily paying more than that for your hard copies every year. Books themselves can be cheap, but no book (outside of a penny and dollar shop) are going to top the stories on Kindle. Kindle’s prices are on the rise, but as a whole, its prices remain incredibly cheap compared to its hard-copy competitors. Plus, as long as you don’t drop your Kindle in water, your collection is going to last forever. Wear and tear’s not an issue there.

Another advantage of E-readers? Many books in one. You have a portable little friend that has your whole collection right at your disposal. It’s far easier to keep track of than a stack of bulky books. If you are like me, though, you have a thing for aesthetics. I love the smell of old books. I love the feeling of the paper between my fingers, nor can I focus so clearly on a screen as I can upon a book. Plus, there is nothing quite like the weight of a hard cover well-in-hand.

Still, for those well-suited to the screens, these electronic readers have adjustable fonts, to accommodate aging eyes. They can easily combat the glare of the sun, as well. There are no pages to turn, nor tear, and you can proceed at just the touch of a hand.

Speaking as a college student myself, though, the benefits to us students should be obvious. Supposing the book stores all turned to Kindles with their stocks? Hundreds of dollars are wasted on textbooks every semester. With the Kindle’s prices, imagine how much money we younglings could save?

Yet what do these electronics mean for libraries? Could the future be shelves lined with blank readers, waiting to be checked out? Maybe you would have to bring your own and set to browsing their selection. Perhaps a display—pick your program, what’s your pleasure? Just click a button and download your choice! When the due date’s come and gone, the program/book of your choice will simply disappear again, and you will be ready for another check-out. It’s less personal, but the ease is undeniable. I would be interested to see how they charge you fines, though. Perhaps it would simply do away with them all-together, if the program simply disappears after a time anyhow.

But as an author, I implore you one and all to think on what the e-reader will mean for the writer. We labor over every script, but it is we that are always the first screwed over by the companies, the publishers, etc. When the market suffers, rarely is it the companies that feel the hurt—always the writer. Money is rough to come by in the profession, unless you are one of the lucky ones like George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling. So when we turn to the even cheaper markets of e-books, how much additional hurt will it put on writers? Are the royalties on a $1 book sale going to keep a writer going? The companies still have to pay everyone that works for them, and at a buck a pop, do you really think they are going to be kind to the authors? That nice little copyright only means so much.

As a practical son of the times, I see the advantage of the e-readers. I see the advancement they embody for society. As a writer, however, I have to side against them. Convenient, yes, but the negatives for authors far outweigh the good. Plus, for me, it all comes back to those aesthetics. I am picky where many others aren’t, I know, but it is simply how I feel.

Think about it. Draw your own conclusions. One thing is for certain, though: the literary world is at a crossroads. One can only guess what might yet come after.