Who are the really essential fantasy authors?

I mean, once you get past Patricia McKillip, who else is utterly essential? If you met someone who had just discovered fantasy as a genre, who would you instantly recommend?

I had a neighbor once tell me she’d tried fantasy and didn’t like it. A moment’s questioning revealed that’s she’d only tried a couple fat fantasies that were popular but not actually good — I don’t remember which, but things like The Sword of Shanara, you know?

I handed her THE CHANGELING SEA and she stayed up way late to finish it and was completely converted to fantasy as a worthwhile genre. I still remember her asking the next morning, “Are there more like this?” Lucky for her, yep, plenty!

But who would you recommend after McKillip?

For me the MUST READ list would include:

Peter Beagle — The Last Unicorn and A Fine And Private Place

Lois McMaster Bujold — The Curse of Chalion

Emma Bull — War for the Oaks — she was doing paranormal romance before it was a fad genre! But I don’t know, one could hardly say that Emma Bull is one of THE fantasy authors, right? Because she hasn’t written enough? Or is it legitimatize to include authors who aren’t very prolific if they’re good enough? After dithering a bit, I decided the heck with it, this is a great book and I’d include it.

CJ Cherryh — Fortress in the Eye of Time, maybe The Goblin Mirror

Susan Cooper — The Dark is Rising series

Diana Wynne Jones — The Power of Three, Dogsbody, the Chrestomanci books

Barbara Hambly — Dragonsbane — but I don’t know, the later books in the series aren’t necessarily ones I’d recommend. And Hambly’s written some that aren’t very good, imo, as well as many that are excellent.

Barry Hughart — Bridge of Birds and the other two. Again, he may not have been very prolific, but everyone should read Bridge of Birds!

Guy Gaviel Kay — Maybe The Longest Road trilogy? Or, for me, Under Heaven is one of his best.

RA MacAvoy — Tea With the Black Dragon and Lens of the World

Robin McKinley — The Blue Sword and Sunshine For me, anything new by Robin McKinley is occasion to celebrate.

Juliette Marillier — Daughter of the Forest

Margaret Mahy — The Changeover

Ann McCaffery — The original Dragonriders of Pern trilogy. I know, I know, McCaffery has written some AWFUL books, but I still think her first Dragonrider ones and some of the others are really good.

Elizabeth Moon — The original Paksenarrion trilogy

Tim Powers — On Stranger Tides; if someone doesn’t like that one, don’t you think the probably wouldn’t like Powers? Or would you recommend something different?

Sharon Shinn — The Safe-Keeper’s Secret trilogy; and then maybe The Shape-Changer’s Wife if they loved McKillip, or maybe Mystic and Rider if they leaned more toward adventure and less toward beautiful language.

Maggie Stiefvater — The Scorpio Races, which feels like I’m cheating because Stiefvater is hardly a classic fantasy author, she’s too new, but she’s so good that I can’t leave her out.

Judith Tarr — Lord of the Two Lands

Patricia Wrede — The Talking To Dragons series, Sorcery and Cecilia.

What do you all think? Have I totally missed somebody crucial? I would never recommend something I didn’t like, no matter how influential it was or how many awards it won, so nothing like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenent is on here. So a reader who might like a grimmer sort of story is out of luck with this list, but there you go, all lists of this kind are going to be personal, after all.

And I’ve assumed that YA and adult are both going to appeal to any fantasy reader, which I think is true if the books are really good. And I guess I’m assuming that absolutely everyone’s either read Tolkein or at least seen the movies — though I certainly don’t think the movies substitute for the books. (Though they were REALLY GOOD, weren’t they? I’m looking forward to The Hobbit this December!)


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17 thoughts on “Who are the really essential fantasy authors?”

  1. Megan Whalen Turner? I also adore Elizabeth Wein’s Aksum books, which are just barely not fantasy, in that they are AU but more on the historical fiction side. Still, I think most fantasy writers would like them.

    Also new, but fantastic–Frances Hardinge. She’s British and pretty underrated here, but well worth seeking out.

    There are actually a number of authors on your list that I HAVEN’T READ. What joy!

  2. No Pratchett? Maybe suggest REAPER MAN or SMALL GODS. I’ve had FEET OF CLAY work, too (but the person it worked on was a potter).

    For Tim Powers I’d suggest LAST CALL because it’s the one that works best for me. Or DECLARE, especially of the person likes LeCarre.

    A couple older works: LUD-IN-THE-MIST by Hope Mirlees, and something of Lord Dunsany’s – maybe short stories, or his one novel KING OF ELFLAND”S DAUGHTER.

    If your reader likes Shakespeare, try MIDSUMMER TEMPEST by Poul Anderson, where Shakespeare’s plays are actual history. Or THREE HEARTS & THREE LIONS, which is rather fun , and fun fantasy isn’t all that common. (Yeah, the Hugharts are fun, I know.) in that vein, Nicholas Stuart Gray’s GRIMBOLD’s OTHER WORLD or FABYLON(if you can find them – pubbed about 40 years ago as juveniles).

    Franny Billingsley, who wrote CHIME.
    Hardinge is good too, but a little too good at giving me the creeps.



    For GG Kay, not the FIONAVAR trilogy – reactions are strongly mixed on that. TIGANA seems to be more generally approved of, or my favorite is LAST LIGHT (it’s the northern thing), and UNDER HEAVEN is really good. I’m looking Forward to RIVER OF STARS.

    For something different, Alma Alexander’s EMBERS OF HEAVEN, which is Mao in fantasy China.

    LeGuin’s LAVINIA. Or Earthsea (original trilogy ONLY)

    James Thurber’s THE THIRTEEN CLOCKS. (for all ages.)

    Maybe Jemison, I’m not sure. See how well she wears on me.

    I’m trying to cover a wide range in recommendations. :-)

  3. I agree with Elaine that Discworld is an essential fantasy series, these days. Also, definitely the original Earthsea trilogy. Did you leave it off because it’s so old and classic everybody’s already read it? (Like Tolkien. Or C.S. Lewis, for that matter; I suppose Narnia is really too young for this list.)

    You can certainly make a case that Tim Powers : ON STRANGER TIDES as McKillip : THE CHANGELING SEA — but his most broadly popular is apparently still THE ANUBIS GATES so I’d go for that one. Unless you know your inquiring reader is already a fan of spy novels (DECLARE), or urban fantasy (LAST CALL), or horror (the only people I’d recommend THE STRESS OF HER REGARD as the first choice).

    Judith Tarr is kind of hit-or-miss for me, much like Hambly, although I did like LORD OF THE TWO LANDS.

    I think McCaffrey writes SF, not fantasy. Maybe it’s because I don’t have biology well enough internalized, but it *is* set on another planet.

  4. Okay, yes, definitely Pratchett! I was not very interested in the earliest ones such as The Color of Magic way back when, so I’m not sure where to suggest somebody start. At the moment, I’m inclined to suggest starting with some of the later Sam Vimes books, but of course they’re on my mind since I just listened to several of them in a row! Of which I might pick THUD as my favorite — maybe. Or I agree, Elaine, maybe REAPER MAN, that’d be a good choice!

    I just forgot about the Earthsea books.

    For me, the Dragonriders series counts as fantasy. Cause it FEELS like fantasy, see. Plus, huge flying dragons? Pull the other one. Fantasy. With minor SF elements that turn up late.

    Thanks for the other suggestions! Shannon Hale — I just listened to The Princess Academy, and it was okay, but it doesn’t make me want to rush out and get more of her books. Too MG for me. Hardinge I need to try, I keep seeing that name.

    Maureen — of course the Megan Whelan Turner series! Definitely! And I also just loved Wein’s books, though my GOD did they push the limits on horrible-things-happening-to-people for me. Though of course they had good endings — at least for the main characters. And there are authors on there you haven’t read? !!! Who?

  5. I thought of this additional recommendation after shutting down last night… John Bellairs FACE IN THE FROST. It’s different. Opening sentence: Several centuries (or so) ago, in a country whose name doesn’t matter, there was a tall, skinny, straggly-bearded old wizard named Prospero, and not the one you are thinking of, either.
    Starts whimsical a goes straight into nightmare. Have you read his juveniles? HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN THE WALLS, etc? This is not a juvenile.

    On Pratchett, I’ve heard of several people who started with SMALL GODS and went on. It has the advantage of not being part of a continuing story line. ( Although it sort of hooks up with CARPE JUGULUM. )

    And why leave off Tolkien?

    Judith Tarr is a miss for me, and I’ve never put my finger on why. By all appearances I ought to love them. But she wouldn’t be on my list of essential writers at all.

    On Hale, lots of people like her PRINCESS ACADEMY but I don’t care for it nearly as much as others.

    If the hypothetical reader got into fantasy through McKillip another writer to suggest could be Pamela Dean, whose standalones work much better for me than her trilogy. Her style reminds me of McKillip and McKinley in some ways. Also, for style, Meredith Ann Pierce, DARKANGEL (trilogy, but I didn’t like the 3rd AT ALL – read two and stop), or WOMAN WHO LOVED REINDEER, which is a standalone.

    I really need to try Wein again when I have a couple hours to get lost in a book without distractions.

    DRAGONFLIGHT has a prologue – even in the first edition – placing the setting firmly on a planet. Regardless of that, I think they’re fantasy, too. They read like fantasy.

    While I love CJC, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the reader bounce hard off of her work. Keeping that in mind, GOBLIN MIRROR strikes me a s more approachable than FORTRESS. Shorter, too, so less intimidating.

  6. Very true with Wein, but personally speaking, I can take a lot as long as things turn out well. And even with Code Name Verity (her latest, harrowing and wonderful) they do.

    I haven’t read Hambly & Hughart and a lot of the others are either languishing on my miles-long to read list or on my stuffed-full library books bookcase. I’m in the middle of Judith Tarr’s ALAMUT right now and liking it.

  7. Hit enter too quickly! Pamela Dean–YES. I don’t love all of hers, but TAM LIN is wonderful. And with Shannon Hale, she won the Newbery for one of her weaker books, IMO. Book of a Thousand Days is great; I loved Goose Girl when I read it, but I haven’t been sure it’ll stand up to re-reading, so I haven’t. I also haven’t read the Princess Academy sequel.

    I’ve wondered if DRAGONRIDERS is nominally SF simply because McCaffrey wanted to be taken seriously by certain groups of readers/fellow writers. It certainly FEELS like fantasy to me as well, though I never did make it all the way through the series.

  8. Hale’s GOOSE GiRL has held up to repeated readings by our daughter and me, FWIW. The PRINCESS sequel – we just returned it to the library – didn’t strike either of us as worth buying. Other people may like it, but not us. Overly political and under characterized. Or something. And too strong an echo of the French Revolution plus Marx, while being too simple. That’s my take, our 16 year old just didn’t care for it and won’t articulate much.

    I rarely say it, but this one book might have benefited from being longer.

  9. Okay, let’s see if I can hit everything . . . I left off Tolkein simply on the assumption that EVERYONE who’s started reading fantasy will already have read LoTR (or at least seen the movies).

    FACE IN THE FROST — I haven’t read it, but though I love the first sentence, the idea that it “goes straight into nightmare” is a turnoff for me. I normally like dark fantasy well enough, but usually not horror. Dean Koontz I can read, because I know he will not kill off any characters I really like. Other horror . . . not so much.

    I *really* loved LORD OF THE TWO LANDS by Tarr, and have liked others of hers, too. I haven’t tried ALAMUT and in fact hadn’t heard of it, so thanks for mentioning it, Maureen, I’ll have to keep an eye out for it.

    I’ve heard TONS of great things about CODE NAME VERITY and I simply *must* read it . . . but I admit I haven’t got it yet, even though I love Wein. It sounds like it will be very very intense, which I’m not sure I’ve been in the mood for lately.

    Oh, if the sequel to The Princess Academy goes sliding off in the direction of Marx, it’s not for me. No. Simplistic economics . . . *rolls eyes* . . . just no. But maybe I will try THE GOOSE GIRL.

    Meredith Ann Pierce . . . I read BIRTH OF THE FIREBRINGER, but didn’t much care for it. The writing style is good, but the impulsive-to-the-point-of-stupidity main character did not work for me. I am almost never into protagonists who are driven by emotion and impulse and constantly get themselves into stupid situations because of it.

    Maybe I should give Pamela Dean another try. It’s been a loooong time since I read one of her books (and it was in fact TAM LIN), and at the time I didn’t particularly like it, but who knows? Maybe it would appeal to me more now.

    I do agree that CJC is definitely not for everyone. If someone constantly criticizes books for being too slow-paced, for example, probably there’s just no point in trying Cherryh. Even THE GOBLIN MIRROR starts off very slowly, imo. In fact, if a reader really prefers a faster pace and wants to try CJC, I’d suggest skipping the fantasy and going straight for the SF — the Chanur series would be the ones I’d usually hand somebody. Or CUCKOO’S EGG. But she is one of my all-time favorite authors, so I really feel everyone ought at least try one or two of hers!

    And fine. FINE. I’m clearly going to HAVE to try Frances Hardinge.

  10. Another possibility from CJC to hand someone in the fantasy line is her PALADIN. I know some people who liked it when they didn’t like any other book of hers.

    M.A. Pierce … yeah, you notice I didn’t mention BIRTH OF THE FIREBRINGEr – that wasn’t an oversight. :-) i love the way she puts words together and her imagination has come up with wonderful stuff, but the characters aren’t always the brightest. Sometimes I can take them, sometimes I can’t. If it helps, I think….. [pause for a search…] yes! Book Smugglers liked the two DARKANGEL books I recommended. I

    ‘m halfway through a book now, where I’m very frustrated with the main character who is supposed to be leader, and we’re in her head and she’s whining and not wanting to take responsibility, and acts on heart and instinct not thought …. I’d put it down but she’s FINALLY showing signs of accepting she has to grow up. If only she were 18-20 instead of somewhere in her 30s. If the author weren’t on her side she’d have been long dead. The story, setting, worldbuilding, culture, secondary characters, etc., (some of whom have had QUITE enough of her lack of acceptance) are all interesting, though would be better unhampered by the main character. That’s who have kept me going through it.

    Note to writers: It’s really hard to take a whiner seriously as a leader figure.

    FACE IN THE FROST is creepy horror/dark fantasy, not blood, guts and murders horror. I can read it, and I can’t read most horror. It is leavened by things like Prospero’s magic mirror, which has a distinct personality and tendency to mangle operreta.

  11. Interestingly, I know people who love other books by CJC but not PALADIN. I don’t know; I really loved PALADIN. In fact, this whole thread is making me want to go back and re-read a lot of books, including PALADIN. And FOOL’S RUN.

    I’ll look at the DARKANGEL ones, given your recommendation. Especailly if The Book Smugglers liked it — though Thea liked PRINCESS ACADEMY much more than I did, so it’s not foolproof.

  12. It’s great to see a forum which references so many of my favourite books.
    McKillip, McKinley, Beagle, Powers, Hughart, Dean, MacAvoy – yes!
    I’ve read all of Frances Hardinge’s novels and they’re excellent. Gullstruck Island is my favourite, but they’re all well worth reading. They seem to get awful cover art in the US – that’s probably not helping her profile.
    It’s good to see Franny Billingsley get a mention. I’d recommend THE FOLK KEEPER to anyone who enjoys McKillip and CHIME is amazing.
    Nobody has mentioned James Blaylock – whimsicality and darkness intertwined.

  13. I’ve read so much about CHIME; I clearly need to add it to my wishlist so I don’t forget about it. And if THE FOLK KEEPER reminds readers of McKillip, probably that, too.

  14. There were many of my top choices already listed, but how about Esther Friesner’s Yesterday We Saw Mermaids? It is serious, but has some laugh out loud lines in it. Then there’s Margaret Ball, who’s done one book from her Chicks in Chainmail series and an sf novel, but also did Lost in Translation, No Earthly Sunne, and Flameweaver and Changeweaver. Then for beautiful language there’s Greer Ilene Gilman, who hasn’t published much, and there’s Holly Lisle, Carol Berg, Walter Moers, Gregory Frost’s two books Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, and for sheer fun C. Dale Brittain’s Yurt books.

  15. I went off reading other blogs and realized there were others I was thinking of. Some classics not mentioned are John Crowley’s Little, Big, Finney’s Circus of Dr. Lao, and Bramah’s Kai Lung books. I would also list Vonda N. McIntyre’s book Dreamsnake, Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, A College of Magics by Caroline Stevermer, Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, and the fairy tale retelling series with books by Kara Dalkey, Jane Yolen, and Steven Brust, along with others. They can be a bit slow, but Patricia Kennealy’s series could be another one. I like Lorna Freeman, Alex Bledsoe, Leah R. Cutter, and Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, Leigh Brackett, and Dan Crawford as well.

  16. Thanks! I’ve never heard of Greer Ilene Gilman; I’ll have to look her (him?) up. I’ve read a couple by Holly Lisle, not too overwhelmed. I did really like the trilogy I read by Carol Berg; I need to find a couple more by her one of these days.

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