Everyone has their favorite fantasy novels — those special books that you read over and over again, hoping each time to find something new that you might have missed in your last reading. It could be the daring swordfights that draw you in. Maybe the cleverly coded symbolism. Or maybe it’s steamy in the way that a hot summer day isn’t.
Whatever the reason, certain books just speak to us. Here are a few of mine.
The Princess Bride
When I was a kid, The Princess Bride was one of my favorite movie for three reasons:
1) The sword fights.
2) It starred Andre the Giant.
3) Mandy Patinkin used the phrase “son of a bitch.” (I was a kid, remember. Swearing automatically equaled awesome.)
When I picked up the book the first time in high school, I was utterly bewildered by the ruse set down by the book’s author, William Goldman, who claimed that the book was actually an abridged version of another author’s work, and then goes on to provide surprisingly intimate details of his life. It was all a trick, I later learned — he was using it as a literary device. But for his sly sense of humor, this book is one I keep dear to my heart.
The Marvelous Land of Oz
Though The Wizard of Oz gets all the attention, I have always been a huge fan of its first sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz, which features the young lad Tip, the ward of Mombi, and his own crew of misfits: Jack Pumpkinhead, the Saw Horse, the Wogglebug, and the Gump.
Author L. Frank Baum continued his sly brand of feminism (in The Wizard of Oz, all the characters with any real power are female) by having the Emerald City overtaken by an army of militant young women, and what’s more — SPOILER ALERT!! — he includes what might be the first transgender character in children’s literature, as it’s revealed that Tip is really Princess Ozma, who was transformed by Mombi in her infancy into a boy, in order to conceal her identity. At first hesitant to return to his true state, Tip is convinced by his friends and allows the spell to be cast that transforms him back into Ozma. Not something you read every day.
Interview with a Vampire
Long before she found Jesus and stopping writing readable books, Anne Rice emerged from the shadows of literary erotica and wrote this fascinating gothic fantasy, which earned her a legion of fans and an A-list film adaptation. Told from the point of view of Louis, a vampire who is less Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and more the kind of kid that today we’d call “emo,” it is a fun little book, never too wordy or challenging for a high schooler, which is when most people seem to discover it, and for all its pomp and audacity never seems to run that deep beyond the repeating sentiment that being a vampire, well, sucks. (Get it?)
Sexuality was always a prevalent theme in Rice’s works. As the books went on, homosexuality and bisexuality became more prevalent themes, despite her bold choice to render all of her vampires physically impotent. (I suppose this saves us from imagining squirm-inducing undead sexual scenarios.) All in all, Interview remains one of the strongest and, thankfully, least bombastic books in her Vampire Chronicles, and is an enjoyable escapist piece.
The Mists of Avalon
I love, love, love this book. This novel, by Marion Zimmer Bradley, took the utterly complex mythology of King Arthur and turned it on its head by emphasizing the power of the women in these stories instead of the men, and while much of Arthurian tale champions pure Christian values, this story places the Pagan Druids as the protagonists, with the encroaching Christian Church as an oppressive tyrant. But rather than being an anti-Christian piece, the main character, Morgaine, realizes it’s not the teachings of Jesus that are opposed to her, just the men in the Church who are threatened by another religion.
But beyond the basic themes, it’s a fascinating character study of four incredible characters: Morgaine, a woman reared in Avalon and dedicated to keeping the ways of the Old Religion alive; Gwenhyfar, a devoutly Christian woman who is terrified of the world; Arthur, the man whom greatness was thrust upon; and Lancelet, a warrior who is struggling with his forbidden love for his best friend, Arthur.
This novel really has everything you could ask for in a fantasy novel, and it’s an incredibly mature piece. And if you’re worried, no knowledge of Arthurian legend is needed to appreciate it. If you haven’t read it yet, get your ass of the internet and go to a bookstore right now. You’ll thank me. (But then come back to the internet. We need you.)
The Harry Potter Series
I resisted this series for a long time. I was one of those cantankerous twenty-somethings who utterly refused to indulge in a series of books meant for children. I was WAY too highbrow for that sort of thing. But then a friend of mine, one whose opinion I greatly respect, read the first few books and told me they were actually pretty good. I told her that although I value her input, I wasn’t about to cave. But then my late grandfather, a greatly distinguished writer and very literate fellow, told me he read them and they were delightful, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to at least peek at the first one. I did, and was hooked.
I loved how the characters grew over the course of the books, truly maturing and changing as the stories evolved, and how J.K. Rowling carefully crafted Harry to slowly evolve into a true literary hero of the old school. Does the Potter saga borrow liberally from Lord of the Rings? Yes, but what fantasy literature doesn’t?
At the end of the day, there’s some real art to be found in the bajillion pages of text that Rowling puts down, but none more so than in the conclusion to her epic, Harry Potter and the The Deathly Hallows.
I know it sounds like pretentious garbage to put The Iliad as one of my favorite fantasy novels, and perhaps even erroneous, as it isn’t technically a novel. And if I wasn’t such a foaming-at-the-mouth Greek myth nerd, I probably wouldn’t be too interested. But as it happens, I Greek-geek out with the best (or worst) of them, and The Iliad takes place during one of the most exciting and action-packed moments in all of Greek mythology.
One of the reasons that 2004’s Troy, which claimed it was based on The Iliad, felt so weak is that it ignored the best part of the story — the gods. Sure, the mortals in the film talked about the gods, prayed to the gods, worried about offending the gods, but it all came across as religious hooey that had no dramatic stakes, because for all we knew, the gods didn’t really exist, and these were just silly people running around in skirts.
Homer’s epic makes for great reading — if you’re a devoted fan of Greek myths. If not, and if you somehow got through school without having to read it, I’d say don’t bother.
The Lord of the Rings
Like you didn’t see this one coming.
Okay, listen closely, because I’m going to admit something incredibly shameful to you. It’s very embarrassing, and I only ask that you don’t judge me too harshly.
Okay, here we go.
When Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring came out in 2001, I went in cold.
Because I hadn’t read the book.
I hesitate to admit that, because I feel like it may compromise my integrity as the Associate Editor of a fantasy website. But when that first film came out, I just hadn’t read the books. I can’t give you any reason. I had read The Hobbit and loved it. I had read other fantasy works. I’ve always loved the genre. It just seemed like such a big undertaking, and it was always something I had meant to do, but I had just never got around to.
But then the cinematic version, which is a masterpiece in its own right, washed over me, and I knew I had to read the books before the next film came out. And I did. Twice, actually. And The Silmarillion.
By the time I sat in the theaters to watch The Two Towers, I was a Tolkien expert, and have read the books at least half a dozen times since then.
The Lord of the Rings is, quite frankly, my favorite book of all time. Every sentence is a pleasure. If I could read no other book for the rest of my life, it would be that.
Okay, well, that’s enough out of me. I want to hear what YOUR favorite fantasy novels are. I know you’ve got them. Now it’s your turn.
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