From Book Riot: THE 20 MOST INFLUENTIAL FANTASY BOOKS OF THE LAST 10 YEARS
In years with a boring and undistinguished number, such as 2023, I think it would really be best to round it off: the most influential fantasy novels since 2010, say. Also, I’m resigned to the notion that I won’t have read any of the books mentioned. Probably — this is just a guess — I’ve never heard of half of them and the other half are on my TBR pile.
Also, separate issue — I’m not sure you can pick out anything as “most influential” a mere decade after it was published. Maybe? But for influence, maybe you can’t tell yet? I mean, maybe you can say, “Look, The Hunger Games spawned this ocean of first-person-present-tense YA dystopian SF trilogies between this year and that year, a fad that burned itself out about here and left no particular influence on YA science fiction in general.” I seems to me something can be influential in producing a fad, but won’t look particularly influential if you wait another ten years.
Fine, though: what are these recent influential fantasy novels?
First, let me count the ones I’ve never heard of. Eight. Not quite half, but not far off.
1) The Jasmine Throne by Suri — Exiled by her despotic brother, princess Malini spends her days dreaming of vengeance while imprisoned in the Hirana: an ancient cliffside temple … the secrets of the Hirana call to Priya … [who] works as a servant … cleaning Malini’s chambers. When Malini witnesses Priya’s true nature, their destinies become irrevocably tangled. One is a ruthless princess seeking to steal a throne. The other a powerful priestess desperate to save her family. Together, they will set an empire ablaze.
2) Children of Blood and Bone by Adeyemi — They killed my mother. They took our magic. They tried to bury us. Now we rise.
3) An Ember in the Ashes by Tahir — Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.
That’s a good tagline for the description. I was pretty tempted by this one, but then this: “Tahir’s world-building is wonderfully detailed and the setting is an unusual one for fantasy novels. All of her characters, even minor ones, are fully realized….For fans of Game of Thrones and of Melina Marchetta’s Finnikin of the Rock.” That’s from School Library Journal, but the point is, I hated Game of Thrones and Marchetta’s Finniken trilogy was too dark for me and I gave it away. I can’t remember if I read the third book or just couldn’t face it, but I know it was dark, dark, dark and I just couldn’t. Plus this was years ago, when I was much more tolerant of grim fantasy than I am now. The reviews are all, “brutal world,” and “This novel is a harrowing, haunting reminder of what it means to be human—and how hope might be kindled in the midst of oppression and fear” and I’m thinking I’m just not up for this.
4) Pet by Emezi — There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in the city of Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with this lesson all their life. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature made of horns and colors and claws, who emerges from one of her mother’s paintings and a drop of Jam’s blood, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Pet has come to hunt a monster, and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption’s house. Jam must fight not only to protect her best friend, but also to uncover the truth, and the answer to the question–How do you save the world from monsters if no one will admit they exist?
This sounds interesting and maybe kind of a magical realism story.
5) The Gilded Ones, by Forna — Sixteen-year-old Deka lives in fear and anticipation of the blood ceremony that will determine whether she will become a member of her village. Already different from everyone else because of her unnatural intuition, Deka prays for red blood so she can finally feel like she belongs. But on the day of the ceremony, her blood runs gold, the color of impurity–and Deka knows she will face a consequence worse than death. Then a mysterious woman comes to her with a choice: stay in the village and submit to her fate, or leave to fight for the emperor in an army of girls just like her. They are called alaki–near-immortals with rare gifts. And they are the only ones who can stop the empire’s greatest threat.
My favorite cover
I like some of what I see in the description here. The setting sounds very cool. The plausibility … oh no, I’m semi-immortal! … I’m having trouble with this notion. Then I see some of the reviews say things like, “If you’ve read any fantasy books, you’ll know Deka is in trouble. How much trouble is probably beyond what you imagine. Her trials are brutal. This book is not for the fainthearted. The story contains torture, mutilation, rape/sexual assault, child abuse, and human/child trafficking.”
6) Black Leopard Red Wolf by James — Tracker is known far and wide for his skills as a hunter: “He has a nose,” people say. Engaged to track down a mysterious boy who disappeared three years earlier, Tracker breaks his own rule of always working alone when he finds himself part of a group that comes together to search for the boy. The band is a hodgepodge, full of unusual characters with secrets of their own, including a shape-shifting man-animal known as Leopard.
A lot of these novels seem to be revenge fantasies. This one, not so much. I was thinking of picking it up, until I saw this header for a review: Dark and cynical, punctuated by horror and lost hope. “Everything seems corrupt and meaningless, and every once it’s as horrific as Mama June in a car crash. There are a few moments where hope seems possible for some more redeeming characters, but fortunately the author slams the door shut on that with gusto.”
Okay, so I’m like, um, nope. I don’t care how cool the setting is, I’m not up for this.
7) The Midnight Library by Haig — Somewhere out beyond the edge of the universe there is a library that contains an infinite number of books, each one the story of another reality. One tells the story of your life as it is, along with another book for the other life you could have lived if you had made a different choice at any point in your life. While we all wonder how our lives might have been, what if you had the chance to go to the library and see for yourself? Would any of these other lives truly be better? … Nora finds herself faced with this decision. Faced with the possibility of changing her life for a new one, following a different career, undoing old breakups, realizing her dreams of becoming a glaciologist; she must search within herself as she travels through the Midnight Library to decide what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.
Whew! A totally different type of story! A complete departure! “A feel-good book guaranteed to lift your spirits.” “Charming.” “Uplifting.” You know what, I’m picking up a sample out of sheer relief that I’ve hit finally a book on this list that does not sound grim, grim, grim.
8) Circe by Miller — In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child — not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power — the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves. Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus. But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.
This sounds good! But a few days ago, commenter Kriti pointed to this Reddit thread where Circe is specifically mentioned as a story where everyone is mean to everyone else and particularly to Circe. “Every single character besides Circe is unbearably and unendingly cruel, rude, and spiteful. It feels like an abusive relationship in book form. Why is everyone so awful?!?”
I have no tolerance for this kind of story, as I found out again fairly recently by reading a book where I kept thinking, “For crying out loud, is anybody EVER going to be nice to the protagonist?” Eventually someone sort of was nicer, but I had a really hard time with this story and I’m now going to more trouble to avoid reading anything like that. I fully realize that the Greek gods were like that, but I just don’t want to read about it. Kriti also suggested Ursula K LeGuin’s Lavinia as an alternate novel, also based on Greek mythology, but with far more kindness rather than such an unrelenting focus on unkindness. I picked up a sample of Lavinia instead of Circe.
Next, how many have I heard of, but haven’t ever actually looked at? Two.
1) A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab — Kell is one of the last Antari—magicians with a rare, coveted ability to travel between parallel Londons; Red, Grey, White, and, once upon a time, Black.
2) Shadowshaper by Older — Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging with her friends. But then a corpse crashes the first party of the season. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep real tears . . . Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on. … With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a thrilling magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories.
Both sound interesting and potentially good. Oh, look at that, the two top ratings for Shadowshaper are a detailed five-star review and a detailed one-star review. This is a great moment to just mention that no book appeals to everyone. This made me skim through three-star review, and for me, here is the decisive critique: “Every assumption Sierra makes, every mystery inexplicably solved, every chance encounter- none of it is a red herring. … So basically, the villain is the villain with no surprises, and Sierra’s pure assumption about this stranger’s motives turn out to be totally true and no one is surprised.” I’m seldom okay with this particular weakness.
Next, how many do I have on my TBR pile? Three:
1) A Marvelous Light by Freya Marske — Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.
This one starts off really grim, so I haven’t quite gone past the torture-and-murder prologue to the actual book. Eventually I will, given the steller things I’ve heard about this book.
2) The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune — an enchanting love story, masterfully told, about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.
You all have provided mixed reviews about this one.
3) Jade City by Fonda Lee — Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.
Neat concept. I hear it’s good, but a bit grim. I’ll try it when I’m in that kind of mood.
Next, how many have I actually read? To my surprise, one:
1) Piranesi by Susannah Clarke
And as you may recall, I thought it was lovely.
One more unexpected category: How many have I tried and disliked/DNF/was completely repulsed by? An unexpected and whopping six.
A) The Fifth Season by Jemisin, where I was deeply repulsed by the beginning and I don’t care that I’ve loved other books by Jemisin, I don’t plan to read this one.
2) A Court of Thorns and Roses by Maas, and to be fair, it was the first book the trilogy where I raised my eyebrows at the first page and set it aside, wondering how it could be popular. This is the one where on the very first page, Maas uses the word “parameter” where she meant “perimeter,” and I was like, nope.
3) Six of Crows by Bardugo, and here I tried the book and somehow it didn’t click for me, but I don’t know why not.
5) Legendborn by Deonn. I started it, lost interest, and set it aside.
6) The Grace of Kings by Liu. I’ve admired some of Ken Liu’s short fiction, but I started this novel, was surprised and disappointed not to be at impressed with the actual prose, then was disappointed at what seemed to be thoroughly one-dimensional protagonists, and quit.
I’m not crazy about thinking that more than a quarter of the most influential fantasy novels of the past decade are novels I personally disliked or found disappointing. I’m not keen about so many being brutal tear-it-all-down revenge fantasies either.
However, I’m not concerned at all, because whatever this post is about, it’s not about what novels are likely to be influential. I mean, Piranesi, seriously? In what universe do we expect that book to be influential? Have we seen a spate of novels that feature one character and are set in exceedingly weird settings where the world may or may not communicate with the single character through the flights of birds or other natural phenomena? No? Do we expect to see a swelling number of novels in this general vein in the future? No?
Well, then, maybe “influential” is not quite the right word.
The author of this post appears to be defining “influential” as “won lots of prizes, got lots of attention, and/or is really popular.” They keep saying, “This book won these awards, this book was nominated for this award, this book made various Best Of lists.” Well, I don’t care. As far as I can tell, winning awards has nothing to do with — FINE, not much to do with — being influential. Now, being popular does tend to increase the chances a book will be influential, but being popular can also mean that a book jumped on someone else’s bandwagon and rode a trend, such as (sorry, but I think this is a great example) the Divergent trilogy by Roth, which rode the popularity of The Hunger Games trilogy. I strongly suspect that if the Divergent trilogy had come first, it would have been far less noticed.
Personally, I would suggest we define influential as having a significant influence on trends in writing and publishing books, which is, you know, actually the definition.
Lots of the books above do not look at all likely to be influential to me. Circe, a retelling of mythology? In what universe would this be considered influential? We already have great heaping oodles of fantasy novels that are retellings of myths, legends, fairy tales, etc. If we see another hundred in the next twenty years, it won’t be because of this specific novel or any other specific novel. If I were going to pick out an influential fantasy series that draws on classical mythology, it’d be Percy Jackson’s popular series because that might have influenced a lot of young readers to try their hand at mythology-based fantasy. But even that looks to me like just part of a broader trend toward the popularity of retellings in fantasy.
The Grace of Kings? What are we arguing, that it may create a surge of interest in epic fantasy? How would we be able to tell? There’s lots of epic fantasy already. A surge of epic fantasy with settings that have a Chinese flavor to them? If we actually saw that, why not give GGK the credit? His novels with Eastern-inspired settings are well known, he’s a popular author, and as near as I can tell, the actual writing and storytelling in Under Heaven is a lot better. (A lot.)
Honestly, the linked post should have picked one thing and argued for that thing. Here’s what it looks to me like the author of the post started to do, but got distracted and went off in a different direction:
Claim the post should have made: We’re seeing more African-derived settings than we used to and this is likely to continue. Here are fine modern examples of fantasy novels with these kinds of settings that illustrate a trend toward non-medieval European settings in fantasy novels.
I will say, the settings for a LOT of the above books sound extremely neat. BUT, the books with these settings all sound extremely dark. If any of you have read any of these books and would like to comment, please do. Is anything here that sounds dark, but isn’t as dark as it sounds?