Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Fifty essential epic fantasies . . .

. . . is a kind of shared-blog challenge thing I’m seeing today. Check these out, if you like. There are four sets, including one by Liz Bourke, whose reviews I really enjoy. I’ll put her list at the end. [So far they’ve all just posted a list of 25 titles, with the other half to come on Monday.]

Here’s Tansy Rayner Roberts’ list:

TansyRR — with my comments. (Hers are very much worth reading! Click through and read them!)

1. The Empire Trilogy, Raymond E Feist & Janny Wurtz — this is the series that starts with Daughter of the Empire. I really enjoyed this series, actually, and go back to it more often than to anything else by either author, but I don’t think I loved it as much as Tansy did.

2. Legend, David Gemmell — um, I think it’s actually on my TBR shelves right this moment.

3. The Belgariad, David & Leigh Eddings — as far as I’m concerned, Eddings shows a knack for dialogue in this series, but those he was clearly striving for a high fantasy tone, I don’t think he quite made it. I particularly liked this comment from Tansy: “Belgarath was my first cranky elderly sorcerer, Polgara was my first motherly but eternally beautiful sorceress, Garion was my first farm boy, Silk was my first nimble thief . . .” You can see why she adds that this series was the work that showed her the shape of epic fantasy. Yes, I can see it would do that admirably.

4. The Chronicles of the Cheysuli, Jennifer Roberson

5. Mists of Avalon, Marion Bradley — I wasn’t as impressed with this as everyone else seems to be. Eventually I noticed that every single male character was either incompetent or evil and my enthusiasm for the book never recovered. (I had the same reaction to Gordon Dickson in reverse; eventually I noticed that all his female characters were flighty, naive, and not too bright and that ruined Dickson for me forever.)

6. The Swords of Lankhmar, Fritz Leiber — oh, to me, definitely not epic, definitely sword-and-sorcery, which was never my favorite subgenre.

7. The Adventures of Alyx, Joanna Russ

8. Dragonlance Chronicles, Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman — Tansy says, “Oh Dragonlance, the candied popcorn of epic fantasy” — which is hilarious, but I admit I never had the slightest urge to read any of these.

9. The Odyssey, Homer

10. The Aeneid, Virgil

11. Song of Sorcery, Elizabeth Scarborough.

12. The Black Company, Glen Cook.

13. The Green Lion Trilogy, Teresa Edgerton — I’ve never heard of it, but Tansy makes it sound really good.

14. The Fionavar Tapestry, Guy Gavriel Kay — I’m right there for this one! Yay! Up with GGK! Even though I did not much appreciate the inclusion of the Arthurian stuff in this series.

15. The Riddle-Master Trilogy, Patricia McKillip — I don’t need to comment about McKillip, right?

16. The Neverending Story, Michael Ende

17. Ozma of Oz, L. Frank Baum — isn’t that an interesting choice?

18. The Silver Chair, CS Lewis — Not sure I would have chosen this one — I’m more a Voyage of the Dawn Treader sort of reader — but Tansy’s comments on why she chose The Silver Chair are really interesting.

19. The Immortals, Tamora Pierce.

20. The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, Diana Wynne Jones — fascinating choice, but it’s not a novel, so I hereby disqualify it from my personal epic fantasy list.

21. Incarnations of Immortality, Piers Anthony

22. Medea, Kerry Greenwood

23. Blood and Honour, Simon R Green

24. Sometimes The Magic Works, Terry Brooks — Tansy makes very interesting comments about this set of essays, which, I don’t know, is it fair to include nonfiction about epic fantasy in a list like this?

25. Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

So I’ve read 15 of these 25. Now let’s compare that to Justin at Staffer’s Book Review:

Justin’s list, which was a LOT more chronological —

1. Epic of Gilgamesh

2. Iliad by Homer

3. Aeneid by Virgil

4. The Bible by Prophets — “So here’s the thing,” adds Jusin, “I’m not saying the Bible is fake, but it is pretty fantastical.” Okay, I guess I’ll let that pass.

5. Beowulf

6. Paradise Lost by John Milton

7. Quo Vadis: A Narrative of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz — Justin’s description here is really something. He says rather plaintively, “I’m not really selling this, am I?” No, I have to admit, you’re really not. At least I’m not planning to rush right out.

8. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

9. The Once and Future King by T.H. White

10. The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander

11. Dune by Frank Herbert

12. Watership Down by Richard Adams

13. The Faded Sun Trilogy by CJ Cherryh — Now HERE is an interesting choice. Would anybody else like to agree or disagree that this is fantasy? Science fantasy? Science fiction? To me, this one seems like pretty straight SF (sociological SF), but yes, there are swords.

14. Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker by George Lucas — Justin suggests that this universe eventually becomes a parody of itself, which sounds plausible. Never read any Star Wars ties myself.

15. A Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony

16. The Stand by Stephen King

17. The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (1980) — Oh, I hated the first hundred pages and quit, but I know it’s an important work.

18. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

19. The Dragonlance Chronicles by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman

20. Chronicles of the Black Company by Glen Cook

21. Legend by David Gemmell

22. Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings – Justin notes, “I think this book kind of sucks, but it’s really a key text in the 1980′s farm boy fantasy. It’s one of the ‘faces’ that launched a thousand ships.”

23. The Empire Trilogy by Raymond Fiest and Janny Wurts

24. The Icewind Dale Trilogy by R.A. Salvatore

25. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

Again, I’ve personally read 15 of the books on this list. Well, not the Bible straight through. And probably not the entire work for most of those classical works, either, like the Aeneid. Interesting to compare this list to Tansy’s. It’s so much more a “scholar’s list” than a “reader’s list,” don’t you think?

Moving on: Here’s Jared at Pornokitsch.

Jared —

1. Homer’s Odyssey.

2. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur

3. Wu Cheng’en’s A Journey to the West — Well, doesn’t this sound interesting. Never heard of it.

4. The King James Bible

5. Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter

6. H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” — I never saw the appeal of Lovecraft.

7. Robert Graves’ I, Claudius

8. C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joey stories

9. C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia

10. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings — the funniest comment EVER, as Jared says, “Odd that the light-hearted story of a gardener’s voyage to see an elephant has been so badly misinterpreted over the years.”

11. Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth — A wonderful story, especially if you enjoyed The Girl Who by Cat Valente; I think The Phantom Tollbooth is better.

12. Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn

13. M. John Harrison’s Viriconium

14. 4Michael Moorcock’s Elric — Oh, I *loathed* my first Elric book and that was it for me. But, competing for HILARIOUS COMMENT OF THE DAY, Jared says of this series, “I subscribe to the theory that Elric began as an over-the-top pastiche of epic fantasy – and more interesting because of it. This demonstrates a self-awareness that won’t be seen in again in the field until, well, not for a while at least. (I also think Elric eventually jumped the shark. Then he made love to the shark. Then he killed the shark. Then he wrote poetry about the shark. Then he stared into the void, cursing the universe for a while.)”

14. Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence — I have to say, this is a wonderful series that blew me away when I was a kid. I expect it would really stand up to the test of time, and now that I see it on here, I feel an urge to re-read it.

16. Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea

17. Richard Adams’ Watership Down

18. Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax’s Dungeons and Dragons

19. Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy

20. Dave Sims’ Cerebus

21. Tanith Lee’s Tales from the Flat Earth sequence

22. Lyndon Hardy’s Master of the Five Magics

23. John Milius and Oliver Stone’s “Conan the Barbarian”

24. David Eddings’ Belgariad

25. Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series — Another one I’ve tried but simply detested. And I used to more or less like a lot of Stephen King. Less these days, because I find him transparently manipulative.

Once again, by some strange coincidence, I’ve read 15 of these.

And now — Liz Bourke’s list!

Liz —

1. Homer, The Odyssey.

2. Plato, The Republic — Liz points out something interesting, that “Plato’s ideal city is utopianist and dystopian at the same time.” Huh. I never thought of it that way.

3. Ovid, Metamorphoses.

4. Lucian of Samosata, The True History.

5. The Táin.

6. The Mabinogion.

7. Marie de France, Lais.

8. Snorri Sturlason, The Poetic Eddas.

9. Geoffrey of Monmouth, A History of the Kings of Britain — of this one, Liz comments, “History? Well, maybe. There’s some Arthuriana here.”

10. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess Newcastle, The Blazing World.

11. Poul Anderson, The Broken Sword.

12. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings.

13. Frank Herbert, Dune.

14. Barbara Hambly, The Darwath Chronicles.

15. P.C. Hodgell, Godstalker Chronicles.

16. Tamora Pierce, Tortall.

17. John M. Ford, The Dragon Waiting.

18. Elizabeth Moon, The Deed of Paksenarrion. — Oh, yeah, I’d definitely include this one, the first time we’ve seen it on these lists.

19. Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time.

20. Janny Wurts, The Wars of Light and Shadow.

21. Terry Goodkind, The Sword of Truth. Liz comments, “…although now I can’t see what I ever saw worth reading in his first six books, at the time I first encountered them they contained elements that delighted me…” Fair enough.

22. Melanie Rawn, Exiles.

23. George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire. — How odd that no one else included this. Or is that because the series isn’t finished?

24. Michelle West, The Sun Sword.

25. Joe Abercrombie, The First Law.

And of these, I’ve read 14 — mostly on the later ones; Liz is clearly better read than I am in the old stuff. (Not hard.)

All the comments on all these lists are worth reading. I would never ever read a book (much less a huge thing like the Wheel of Time) just because it’s important. But I do think it’s true that mediocre or even quite awful work can indeed be important to the development of the genre. I think I would like to attend a panel where these four argue about what was most seminal for the development of modern epic fantasy, and why. That would be really interesting!

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13 Comments Fifty essential epic fantasies . . .

  1. Liz Bourke

    Except I would giggle whenever anyone said “seminal,” because I’m twelve like that.

    Jared’s a funny guy.

    I think Goodkind’s SoT was the first time that I’d read a fantasy that had a woman – and Kahlan was definitely a woman – doing things like going on quests and ruling people and KILLING PEOPLE IN THE FACE, and portrayed it as a good thing. I mean, she was obviously ADC to the Real Hero, but one can’t underestimate the appeal of certain things when one is thirteen.

  2. elaine T

    I know I read the Empire trilogy, but I remember very little of it.

    Husband has read and loves David Gemmel’s stuff, it’s still on my ‘read it someday’ list.
    At least we have a complete set, due to husband liking Gemmel, so when I want to I won’t have to hunt it down.

    Belgariad I once found gripping, but it was a long time ago.

    Cheysuli, had an Andre Norton/CJC vibe in the first couple books, which may be why I picked them up, but it didn’t continue to hold my interest. I remember a lot of angst and have an impression of ‘oh gawd, this again?’ conspiring to get me to stop fairly early in the series. Roberson, in general doesn’t work for me. I did like her Robin Hood (much better than McKinley’s which I found horribly un-Robin-Hood-y) but that’s about it.

    I fail to see what every else seems to see in MISTS OF AVALON. I don’t think I even finished it. It was, on a prose level, perhaps her best writing. But aside from giving me the yawns it was completely a-historical. However, I think it did start a fad for Arthuriana from the woman’s point of view (always marketed as new! different!) so from that angle it might be essential.

    skipping some (no, I don’t think S&S is the same as epic), I’m surprised to see Edgerton on there – I remember liking it, but “essential”? I think we’ve even kept our copies … She was doing early industrial era fantasy, too, before it was called steampunk, in THE GNOME’S ENGINE.

    There was a time I didn’t care for the inclusion of Arthur (etc.) in FIONAVAR, but now I see why he had to, and it doesn’t seem like it over-balances the story anymore.

    skipping a lot

    I’ve heard of A JOURNEY TO THE WEST, but haven’t read it. I think Laurence Yep used some of it in his LOST SEA books.

    No one included Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which I read (voluntarily) in HS (after reading a kids’ version, SONG OF ROLAND by Baldwin, when younger), and is full of quests, strange beasts, love, loss, etc., even more so than Arthurian stories. Poul Anderson knew of it, he used it as background to THREE HEARTS & THREE LIONS. Which has got to be included by someone somewhere as seminal humorous but touched by epic fantasy.

    KJ Bible if only for the language.

    Never heard of THE BLAZING WORLD, must see if I can get a look at it.

    Pleased to see Hodgell and West and Wurts mentioned, although I’m not convinced any of them are essential. Hodgell is definitely dealing with epic themes, but she’s somehow writing them non-epicly. Put up against Salvatore, or Weis & Hickman, though, they’re all much better writers. How much impact on the field they’ve had, is a different question.

  3. Craig

    I’ve read more than half of these and at least heard of most of the others. I suspect that my brief urge to compile my own list of 50 will crest short of actually doing so. So, just a few random comments:

    I’ve never heard of THE BLAZING WORLD either, and it’s interesting to see it back with the old stuff. 1666, Wikipedia says. I’m a little surprised I’ve never heard of it, since I’ve seen surveys of utopian fiction.

    I’m evidently stricter about SF v. fantasy than these people, since I cavil not only at THE FADED SUN but at DUNE (which is on two of the lists!) and STAR WARS.

    I’d also say calling Plato’s REPUBLIC epic fantasy is also stretching the terms beyond all reason, despite the Atlantis episode.

    Since I’m apparently focusing my inner curmudgeon, I may as well also complain that historical novels without fantasy elements don’t belong on a list of epic fantasy. I believe that would eliminate I, CLAUDIUS and QUO VADIS, though I have to confess that I’ve never actually read either one.

    The three works of non-fiction also have to go. Even if I adored THE TOUGH GUIDE and am actually more interested to hear about Terry Brooks’ essays than I would have thought, since I have an, um, low opinion of his actual writing skills.

    The most surprising absence I notice offhand is Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which I would say were the first quality books in the post-Tolkien Big Bang, even if they’re not entirely to my taste.

    Given that there’s several YA entries, I’m also surprised that Diana Wynne Jones only makes the list with the TOUGH GUIDE. Oh! and Harry Potter is an even more surprising absence than Thomas Covenant.

  4. Elaine T

    i can sort of see Dune and Star Wars, they *feel* like fantasy, whatever the tech trappings. As one of the people making lists pointed out: prophesy, chosen one, swords, epic scope….

    Not FADED SUN.

    Totally off topic, the inclusion of swords in sf-nal worlds reminds me of a one off that is certainly fantasy, modern/tech trappings AND NO SWORDS! Even with prophesied one, Romance and romance, and highland-ish culture complete with tartans, fey seer, dog, ghosts meddling in the current day. I was impressed. THE MORTAL IMMORTALS, by ‘Cristabel’. (no horses, either, IIRC.) Read it from the library lo these many years ago.

    Agree with your inner curmedgeon, Craig.

    Although I can see those it could be justified as influence, but not as an example of the form.
    (and Atlantis was detailed in Timmaeus, wasn’t it? I can’t read Plato any more, I bounce off hard.)

  5. Craig

    Right, right: Atlantis was in the Timaeus and Critias, not the Republic. My bad. Anyway, if you want the Utopian fiction that has had the most influence on fiction, it would surely be, well, St. Thomas More’s UTOPIA.

    I understand why people would say STAR WARS is fantasy, but I don’t agree with them. Trappings are important!

  6. Rachel

    I honestly can’t remember the first time I read a fantasy with a female protagonist — it seems to me there were plenty that did. McKillip’s books, McKinley’s, Le Guin. Reading would definitely have been a different experience in high school if that hadn’t been the case!

  7. Elaine T

    I’m older than you and I also can’t remember the first time I read a fantasy with a female protaganist. I really don’t understand how so many people can have the impression that there aren’t or weren’t any.

    Whatever it was might have been by Andre Norton – I read a lot of Norton while growing up – but it might have been earlier, too. Even the kid’s ROLAND had female knights having adventures and everything. And (dredging up really young reading) Eleanor Farjeon’s Poll in SILVER CURLEW is the quest hero. Gray had a princess who went on adventures while her brother stayed home.

    Farjeon seems to be almost wholly forgotten these days, but she was really good and deserves reprinting. Some of the stories in MARTIN PIPPIN are masterpieces.

  8. Rachel

    From some posts and comments over at Fantasy Book Cafe for the women in SFF month, it’s clear that some smaller schools (and, I guess, smaller town libraries) had REALLY TINY selections of SFF. I guess that if a library invested its SFF budget in books my Asimov, Clark, Heinlein, Tolkien, and so on, then you might well wind up with a very severe lack of female protagonists.

    But still . . . it absolutely amazes me that a significant fraction of modern readers had this experience.

  9. Liz Bourke

    Some of it, I suspect, is a function of different publishing markets. In Ireland, we had – still have, absent internet orders – in the main books published in the UK market. No McKinley, no McKillipp, very little Le Guin, very little Cherryh… Even now, the market remains more askew than the US in terms of the gender ratio published, although the influx of Australian epic fantasy writers has changed that a little.

  10. Craig

    My wild guess would be that the first fantasy with a female protagonist I encountered was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. And it’s hardly alone among children’s fantasies: there’s Alice, and if you select a single protagonist for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe it’s going to be Lucy.

  11. Rachel

    That’s a good point, I hadn’t thought of that. I had heard that the UK market made (and still makes) very little room for female authors, particularly female SF writers. Amazing to think of going to a bookstore and . . . no CJ Cherryh. I mean, that’s just TRAGIC.

    I’m glad the internet has started to even things out more, but still. Definitely time for the UK to get a clue.

  12. Liz Bourke

    Not none! But very little.

    Dublin has one pretty good bookshop now (it used to have more, before Waterstones pulled out of Ireland). But markets. Etc.

  13. Rachel

    Yeah, but a complete set of CJ is totally essential to anyone’s personal library. Like I said, tragic.

    Glad Dublin has one bookshop, though. The town where I live actually doesn’t have a bookstore at all, so I depend very heavily on book bloggers and Amazon.

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