Monday, May 12, 2014

Surrealities' Top Five Fantasy Faves

Whenever someone asks me to recommend a book, there are a few I always turn to. These few are the books I want everyone to read, firstly because they mean a lot to me, and secondly because I want their authors to get the recognition and readership that they deserve. A few on this list (Pratchett and Rowling, especially) don't exactly need that kind of help, but there's always a chance that someone's missed out.

These are in no particular order, mostly because while I have an absolute favorite (see: The Golden Compass, below), I have a hard time placing the next four.

Note that this list is not meant to be a list of the BEST fantasy novels of all time, merely my favorites. If you've got something different on your own personal list, leave a comment below. I'm always looking for more reading material.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling
Released: July 8, 1999
Genre: Fantasy 


Prisoner of Azkaban, I think, marks the turning point in the evolution of Harry Potter from cute, quirky, easily digestible children's books to the dark and dramatic doorstopper tomes that populate the latter half of the series. I've heard it said that Harry Potter is a series that grows as its characters does, and this is the book where that becomes evident. Harry is just beginning to dip his toes in the emotional and hormonal miasma that comes with the teenage years, and Azkaban mirrors this by making the conflict, both its triumphs and its failures, more personal. Azkaban is not about the grand battle between good and evil. It's about mistakes and their consequences, broken friendships, and petty disputes. Harry's greatest victory isn't in defeating some wicked creature, but in overcoming his entirely justifiable fears. This is the last book in a very long while that ends on a hopeful note, and even this is tarnished by the knowledge that Harry's victory is also, in many ways, a defeat.

Still, this is a lighter novel than what comes after. Harry's adolescent anger has yet to fully manifest, his situation is not quite so dire, and it isn't until the next book that real tragedies will start mounting. Both Azkaban and its hero are in a state of transition, and whether this was intentional or merely a side effect of Rowling's evolving style and editorial freedom, it seems entirely appropriate. I was one of the lucky readers who started the series young and grew alongside it, and Azkaban spoke to my experiences at that point in my life. I will freely admit that it isn't the best, most well-written book in the world, but it means enough to me to earn its place on this list.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
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Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Released: September 8, 2004
Genre: Historical Fantasy


Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of the two books in my library (the other being The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz) to make footnotes interesting. That's good, because there's a heaping helping of them, and some go on for pages. Whether you enjoy the footnotes or not is likely to be the sticking point in your overall opinion of the novel. I, for one, loved them. Many are only tangentially related to the plot, but they do wonders for the novel's setting and mythology.

The realm of Fae, whose denizens operate on an entirely different morality code than we humans do, is the real star of the show. The book sometimes seems less like a novel and more like a book of tangentially related short stories. This isn't a negative, in my opinion. All of the stories presented are well-told and interesting, and the widened scope allows Fae to shine through.

I've only read this book once, and it was a daunting experience. It's a long book made longer by the fact that much of it is told in tiny print along the bottom of the page. Still, it's one my mind comes back to often, and one that has subtly influenced my worldbuilding in myriad ways. 

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West
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Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire.
Released: 1995
Genre: Fantasy


This book took me a while to love, maybe because on my first reading I was a little too demure for the content, which is often explicit and can be more than a little disturbing. Wicked may be based on Frank L. Baum's Oz stories, but it was definitely not written for their audience. The Wizard of Oz is a whimsical, if sometimes treacherous children's novel. Wicked is a cynical book awash with politics and riddled with adult themes.

I was also mislead by the musical this book inspired, which is, on the whole, an upbeat, hopeful affair.

This is not.

Wicked is a more complicated beast than its musical counterpart. Its characters are not cliches. The friendship between Glinda and Elphaba is more understated, but also more natural. Fiyero is a quiet, intelligent young man tattooed with blue diamonds. Boq the munchkinlander never becomes the Tin Man, nor does his crush on Glinda dominate his characterization.

There is no bombastic "Defying Gravity" moment in Maguire's Wicked. That would be contrary to its quiet, dry tone. What Wicked does have is a multitude of wonderful, complex female characters, a fully realized world, replete with believable political conflicts that bramble up Elphaba's road from misunderstood student to "wicked" witch, and a new perspective on a beloved, classic tale that bolsters rather than diminishes the original.

For a few years after reading this book, I was determined to write my own "witch-gone-good" story. That should give you an idea of how completely Wicked captured me.

The Golden Compass
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The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
Released: July 1995
Genre: Fantasy


I'll say it up front: this is my favorite novel of all time. You're not going to get much objectivity out of me when it comes to The Golden Compass. This short "review" is going to be sickeningly gushing and more than a tad sentimental. You've been warned.

In seventh grade, I picked up The Golden Compass as something to while away the days until the next Harry Potter novel. I expected to be entertained. I didn't expect to be changed.

This book and its two sequels made me question things I'd never thought to question. More dangerously, it made me question things I'd been taught never to question. It unbolted my mind, and I was never able, no matter how I tried (and I did, when I was young), to bolt it back up. Silly as it sounds, this book is partly responsible for who I am today.

Most importantly, The Golden Compass gave an aimless young girl real purpose for the first time in her life. This was the first time I'd realized that books could have a higher purpose than entertainment (not that entertainment isn't a laudable goal in itself). I wanted to share what The Golden Compass had done to me with the world, and Philip Pullman had already demonstrated the most perfect way to do it: write.

So now I write.

Apologies to all of the classics that passed through my brain without leaving so much as a dent. You just couldn't match the appeal of armored bears and corporeal soul beasts.

Monstrous Regiment
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Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett
Released: 2003
Genre: Fantasy / Satire


In Terry Pratchett's sprawling Discworld series, Monstrous Regiment is one of the easiest to read as a standalone. Its setting is far removed from the grimy streets of Ankh-Morpork, and of the series' recurring characters, only Sam Vimes of the City Watch has much of a role.

Our heroine is Polly Perks, a young girl who joins the army disguised as a boy to find her missing brother. The nation Polly fights for is the ultra-religious, highly conservative Borogravia, where things like women taking up arms and crossdressing are considered Abominations Unto Nuggan, their fussy, picky god. 

Like all Pratchett books, Monstrous Regiment confronts the political aspects of its subject with wit and charm. The fact that these politics have real-world analogues never weighs down the narrative, instead adding extra layers of meaning to what is otherwise a simple story. Women joining the army disguised as men isn't exactly new storytelling ground, but Monstrous Regiment is a stand-out representative of its kind with a unique twist that puts this standard plot in new perspective.

Monstrous Regiment is one of the more subdued Discworld novels. It has its share of humor, but it's peppered with quieter moments that let its characters and conflicts take center stage. Even the book's climax, which might seem wacky in another author's hands, treats its subject matter with respect.

This is a book with a message, and whether you agree or disagree is likely to reflect on your enjoyment of the book. For me, the message just made the book all the sweeter.

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