In this five-part mini-series, entitled “The World Builders,” I have listed the seven authors I believe have changed how we perceive the fantasy genre and explained the rationale behind each choice.
J.R.R. Tolkien and T.H. White helped revive fantasy after it had fallen out of popularity. Their published works in the early 2oth century laid the groundwork for what the genre would become, and set the gold standard for excellence by which later fantasy novels would be judged.
Tolkien, White and their contemporaries inspired a new era of storytellers. Authors like George R. R. Martin, Guy Gavriel Kay and Robert Jordan explored the limitations of the genre, and opened up new worlds of possibility. The fantasy fan-base grew and began to distinguish itself as independent of the science-fiction community. The most successful fantasy authors built up followings of devoted fans, who exchanged recommendations for great new fantasy books by word of mouth.
It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that fantasy celebrated its mainstream coming-out. J.K. Rowling and her “Harry Potter” books played a pivotal role in introducing a curious mainstream America to the fantasy genre. The Internet, too, helped boost fantasy’s popularity. Die-hard fans built online communities where they could go to discuss the latest novels and genre news. As fantasy slowly earned acceptance among mainstream audiences, the old guard of fantasy readers delighted in a new wave of fantasy movies and spin-offs.
But in the last few years, their excitement has tempered to doubt. Fantasy’s new-found place in the spotlight—and, consequently, its growing market potential—has invited cheap imitations meant to appeal to a new class of less discerning fantasy readers. Some fans sense a threat to the genre’s integrity, and have been reluctant to accept books like Stephanie Meyer‘s “Twilight”—with its teen-romance plot and the token inclusion of bastardized fantasy creatures—as true fantasy.
Who will inherit the future of fantasy? What story, perhaps shivering to life even now in the thoughts of a fledgeling author, will define the genre’s new direction? Will fantasy remain a permanent fixture of modern pop-culture, or will it prove to be a fleeting fad, a short-lived product of the craze that began when young readers fell in love with the boy wizard named Harry?
No one can know the answers to those questions, but these two things are certain: Those who respect fantasy will remain true to those works that capture the genre’s authentic spirit, and fantasy will continue to evolve, change and grow with each new book that appears on the shelves.
And we should appreciate this popular age of fantasy while it lasts, and take note of both good writers and bad. Fantasy, although broad in scope, is not boundless in definition. Those books that make us shudder or scoff are, if nothing else, an affirmation of our roots and a necessary reminder of how far we have come, as we the keepers of fantasy look forward, unto the horizon.
If you loved this list, here are a few somewhat-less-popular but up-and-coming fantasy authors to try:
Patrick Rothfuss — “The Kingkiller Chronicles”
Naomi Novik — “Temeraire” series
Steven Erikson — “Malazan Book of the Fallen”
_____(Thank you, Kshitij Rawat, for this recommendation!)
China Miéville — “Embassytown”, “Railsea” and others
The World Builders: Honorable Mentions
There are hundreds of superb fantasy authors out there, and I could keep this list going forever if I included them all. I’ve tried to list only those authors I feel significantly altered their readers’ perceptions of fantasy as a genre. There are a few others, however, who deserve honorable mentions, not least of all because of the personal impact they have had on my own experience with fantasy.
1) Tamora Pierce — Although I read Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” at age 7, it was Tamora Pierce’s “Song of the Lioness” quartet that served as my gateway drug into fantasy. My 11-year-old self worshiped Alanna of Trebond, the courageous woman knight who challenged society’s gender roles, learned the meaning of courage and saved her kingdom from the clutches of a vile sorcerer. Tamora Pierce did some great things for feminist fantasy, and helped make fantasy more girl-friendly.
2) Ursula K. LeGuin — LeGuin’s “Earthsea” series was another early fantasy love of mine. Her world captivated me, especially the magic in her world. The idea of having a secret name that no one knew, a name that could be used against you if fallen into the wrong hands, seemed terribly clever. Her characters were real to me—due in part, no doubt, to her affinity for archaic style like that of T.H. White.
3) C.S. Lewis — C.S. Lewis was a friend of Tolkien’s, and like Tolkien, his works contained many allusions to Christianity. Lewis revived what I would call the sub-genre of moral fantasy—that is, fantasy whose chief purpose is to educate on morality, rather than merely tell a compelling story. This sub-genre can get preachy at times, but Lewis manages to avoid this in his “Narnia” books, enchanting the reader with the richness of his world and the mystical power of the lion Aslan.
4) Anne McCaffrey — If Tamora Pierce was my fantasy gateway drug, Anne McCaffrey was my heroin. (I mean the opiate, not the female role-model.) To this day, I write for a “Dragonriders of Pern” role-playing group called Storm Fires Weyr. I don’t know if Anne McCaffrey was the first fantasy author to invent dragonriding (probably not), but she perfected it. She transformed dragons from fire-breathing monsters into intelligent companions. What 13-year-old wouldn’t want to Impress a dragon of her own, who could talk to her telepathically and charbroil anyone who tried to bully her? If desirability is the key to good fantasy, as Tolkien suggested, then Anne McCaffrey’s Pern is the ultimate fantasy world.
5) Terry Brooks — This is another author, like Robert Jordan, whose works I’ve never read, but Terry Brooks and his “Shannara” series are fantasy cult classics. Although he is best known for his Tolkienesque fantasy, my friends who’ve read “The Sword of Shannara” tell me that such a definition doesn’t do justice to the complexity of Brooks’ world. Many fantasy fans I know cite Brooks as their introduction to fantasy, and any reader of fantasy would make a mistake to leave Brooks out of any list of influential fantasy authors.
“The World Builders” Mini-Series