Fantasy Heavyweights and Pretenders (Part 1)

March 6, 2016

I’ve always loved the fantasy genre. Every since reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as a young boy (and then rereading them, again and again), I’ve been captivated by it. Since my early introduction to Tolkien, I’ve gone on to read countless other fantasy novels, some of them “high fantasy,” some tinged with sci-fi elements, some of them memorable, worthy of places of honor on my bookshelf, some of them so bad that it’s a wonder the authors were ever able to get them in print. Today I’ll be looking at a few popular authors and series, and giving my opinion of them. They’re listed in order of my favorites to those of which I think the least.

J.R.R. Tolkien: I seriously doubt that anyone would be capable of knocking the champion off the top of the heap for me. The only one who has ever come close is George R.R. Martin. Tolkien is the be all and end all of fantasy writers, as far as I’m concerned, and I know that there are many who feel the same way. Part of what makes Tolkien so special for me is how few books he actually wrote. He pretty much just has The Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, and, as for his other efforts, The Silmarillion, I feel, should be largely ignored, just because the writing style is completely different; it’s almost like the Bible according to Tolkien, the mythos of Middle Earth written of without the attention to detail and character development, and with much less dialogue, than appears in his more beloved efforts.

The four novels that comprise Tolkien’s largest contributions to literature are some of my favorite books, period, of any genre. I care about the characters and their exploits much more than I do about almost all the living, breathing humans that are out and about in the real world, and I have envisioned myself going on their quests with them more times than I can count. Tolkien was able to make that world live for me more than any other author I have ever known, and when I die, if we all get our customized version of heaven, it would look pretty much like the Shire for me.

George R.R. Martin: the Game of Thrones creator seems to be kind of a miserable person in real life, but no matter. Lots of great authors are. And make no mistake about it, Martin is a great author, second, I think, only to Tolkien. His sprawling world is well realized, with all of the political intrigue that makes up the “game of thrones” the royals and would-be royals play with one another described in such a way that the reader is enraptured rather than bored, as would probably happen with a less talented writer. The quality of the prose is excellent, the dialogue is top-notch, and indeed, all the elements of style are handled masterfully. Memorable characters abound, like the Hound, the Mountain, the Imp, and all the Starks and Lannisters.

The only caution with Martin is this: when one creates a world so vast, one runs the risk of having simply too many characters and plot threads. Martin walks a fine line with this, where some other authors, who I will mention later, simply shoot over that line to the point that there are so many characters and locations to keep track of that it becomes one immense muddle. There’s a lot to keep straight in Game of Thrones, what with all the different factions and minor characters, but it is a testament to Martin’s skill that the reader wants to. That has made this series a success with me, and with so many other readers.

Terry Brooks: Brooks is best known for his Shannara series, a vast epic that deals with druids, talismans, and magical powers. It was recently made into a series on MTV called The Shannara Chronicles. I was able to tolerate about five minutes of it before I had to turn it off. It seems like MTV decided to make it a fantasy version of one of those insufferable teenage-geared, angst-ridden melodramas, like Twilight or The Hunger Games. Needless to say, the actual books aren’t anything like that. They deal with most of the typical swords and sorcerers tropes, but the quality of the prose is excellent, the characters are well fleshed out, the villains are appropriately sinister…in short, these books do well everything that fantasy is all about, if not quite at the same level of the true titans of the genre.

One of the things that I appreciate about Brooks is that he has had a long and prolific career, sort of the opposite of Tolkien. With Tolkien you have the Hobbit and the Rings trilogy, and they are to be savored and pored over, because, like I said before, that’s just about all Tolkien wrote that is worthwhile. At last count, there were something like twenty novels by Brooks dealing with the characters introduced in the early Shannara adventures, and then picking things up with the next generation, and the next, and the next. I’ve read five or six of them now, and it seems that the author has managed to keep up the quality of the series over a period of roughly four decades, no easy thing to do. I have no doubt that I’ll continue seeking out other books in this long-running series, and I was glad to have stumbled upon Mr. Brooks when I chanced to find one of his novels at a library book sale last year.

Next time I will talk about some other fantasy authors of note, including Ursula K. Le Guin, R.A. Salvatore, and Michael Moorcock. Be sure to check out the the first book of of my own Rogue fantasy series, available now absolutely free on Juke Pop Serials.

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