Thursday, 20 August 2009

The New Yorker Fantasy Introduction List

As has been widely reported elsewhere, The New Yorker has published a list of what it considers to be ideal 'gateway' reads into epic fantasy for the casual reader. It's a confusing list, apparently unsure if it's talking to kids looking to graduate from Harry Potter (the only possible explanation for the presence of Brooks) or more adult readers looking for something mindblowingly ambitious (hence the Erikson). The presence of Goodkind but the absence of Abraham, Martin, Lynch or Abercrombie I'll put down to a more generic form of insanity, or chronic lack of taste on the part of the person who assembled the list.

Obviously some other blogs immediately started bemoaning the lack of any works from the wider fantasy field, which I sympathise with but I think a simple reading of the article will reveal that the intent wasn't to find what obscure arthouse French films people should watch, but which action blockbusters instead. So on that basis, my agreements and disagreements would be:

The Big Traditional Epic High Fantasy
He went for Tad Williams which is not a bad choice. I think the only viable alternative is really Jordan, which has the disadvantage of being incomplete and five times as long as MST. So Williams I think is a reasonably decent choice, despite his immense longueurs and padding. If this was a more general speculative fiction list I'd have substituted Williams' superior and more imaginative Otherland series instead.

The Pseudohistorical Epic Fantasy
A much less open field. Really, it’s either Kay or Elliott’s Crown of Stars series and in that contest Kay is always going to win. The writer seems to bottle on actually narrowing down a choice, possibly because it'd be hard to know which one to recommend. Tigana and A Song for Arbonne are very fine but The Lions of Al-Rassan is probably his best starter novel for new readers.

The Gritty and Adult Epic Fantasy
I’m always amazed when people, let alone critics, say Wizards' First Rule is 'okay'. It’s only 'okay' when compared to the later books in the series, which says a lot more about them than it does about this atrocious excuse of a novel. Sure, the Evil Chicken, Noble Goat and 150-page Objectivist rants are still to come, but this book alone has the child abuse, the tongue-severing, the magical castration scene, the 75-page BDSM torture sequence, several almost-rapes and quite a lot of Goodkind’s other pleasant tendencies, with the writing as bad as ever. Drop-kick this entry off the end of the nearest pier and whack in A Game of Thrones instead. Having WFR on here and leaving off AGoT is a bit like assembling a best movie list and leaving off The Godfather II but sticking in Scary Movie 3: sure, you can write that down, but don't be surprised when no-one takes you as a serious SF&F critic seriously.

The Thoughtful Character-Based Epic Fantasy
If Hobb ever wrote a stand-alone that actually ended when the narrative drive actually ran out rather than carrying on for another 2,000 pages for no real reason, then I’d agree with her choice. As she never has, I’d boot her off the list and replace her with Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. Better prose, better characters, better stories, better pacing and better books.

The Cheesy 1980s Entry-Level Epic Fantasy
A rather crazy choice. The Heritage of Shannara sub-sequence is overlong and turgid even by Brooks' normal standards, so Scions can be dropped. I’d replace it with Raymond Feist’s Magician, which is not only better and more original, it’s also relatively stand-alone (the 29 sequels are strictly optional).

The New Kids on the Block
Rothfuss is a decent choice but it is very serialised and doesn’t have a climax, it just halts, almost mid-chapter. For that reason I think I’d have to replace it with Scott Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, which is stronger and much more of a stand-alone. I’m tempted to suggest Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, but I think the First Law works a little bit better once you’re familiar with the genre. At that point Abercrombie’s gradual messing around with the genre tropes is a lot more satisfying.

The Balls-to-the-wall, WTF is Going On Philosophical Epic Fantasy With Huge Explosions
As with Abercrombie, I think Erikson works much better once you’re familiar with the genre and know what is going on a bit better. Also, given the series sharply divides even hardened fantasy readers, I’d say it would potentially scare off newcomers. So, as a total no-brainer, I’d substitute this for R. Scott Bakker’s Prince of Nothing Trilogy, which is more approachable for newcomers to the genre (especially if they’ve already read SF like Dune or mainstream historicals about the Crusades or the birth of religions) whilst addressing some of the same ideas and issues as Erikson far more coherently.


Anonymous said...

Excellent and thoughtful construction. I've read through bloggerdom the various lists ranging from attempts to clean up the original list (this one's the best) to an effort to see who can construct the most eclectic list. Great calls, all.

Dan Smyth said...

Spot on. Wouldn't change a lick of this.

JT said...

"Having WFR on here and leaving off AGoT is a bit like assembling a best movie list and leaving off The Godfather II but sticking in Scary Movie 3"

That is priceless, and as accurate as possible.

Anonymous said...

This is why you write a crappy blog instead of for the likes of TNY

Adam Whitehead said...

"This is why you write a crappy blog instead of for the likes of TNY"

Well, plus the fact I'm not American. Or work or live in New York.

But thanks for the visit and the add to my hit-counter, it's much appreciated.

alabrava said...

Personally I'd think trolling a blog you already think is crap ranks much lower than actually writing one.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first two commenter's. Quite an accurate assessment.

Ed S. said...

I am somewhat disappointed that all the titles are from recent history, the last 20 years or so. I know that 7 titles doesn't leave a lot of room to shoe horn things in but it would have been nice to see a little more historical depth.

Anonymous said...

"This is why you write a crappy blog instead of for the likes of TNY"

Terry, is that you? Hey, check it. Goodkind was at the Wertzone.

Marduk said...

""This is why you write a crappy blog instead of for the likes of TNY"

Terry, is that you? Hey, check it. Goodkind was at the Wertzone."

Nice, very nice ;-)

I agree, great post and nice list

paran said...

I will actually disagree re:GRRM. It seems you invented an extra catagory for his inclusion where the author of the blog clearly intended for the Erikson nomination to cover the "adult" category. I also think that WFR as a stand alone is a good introduction to the typical genre story without going throught the thousands of pages of Memory, Sorrow, Thorn and includes adult elements and some neat concepts. As a stand alone I'd put it ahead of Eye of the World (mainly due to the EotW ending).

Agree with you wrt Brooks - would have thought Feists Magician and next couple might have made it, but as a whole I thought the list was pretty good even thought the tone of your post seemed to suggest otherwise.

Jamie said...

Generally I agree with a lot of this, but I think Hobb could stay comfortably on the list; I'm not quite sure why she should be kicked off simply because The Assassin's Apprentice doesn't stand on its own.

Admittedly I haven't read Daniel Abraham, but the Farseer trilogy is an excellent series.

Wilfred Berkhof said...

I have to agree with Kesera, WFR is a good book. Sure the whole series have been tainted in my mind by the later books, but I thouroughly enjoyed the first couple of books.

Anonymous said...

Dragonbone Chair.... this so overrated. How can it keep turning up on so many lists. Go for Jordan all the way or the often overlooked Dragoncrown War Cycle instead.

Unknown said...

I agreed with many of your comments. However, I do think Robin Hobb is a good choice to recommend to anyone. Yes, she is verbose, but she still keeps the story engaging and entertaining. It makes sense in my mind she would be listed, particularly if the author meant to include a character-driven fantasy.

Unknown said...

But if you're remove Robin Hobb's from that list, you remove the only female writer!

Yeah, I've seen better list...