I am sure we all have our own views on which are the five best fantasy novels, but I thought I would throw in my own two cents on this important topic. For those who are not entirely clear on what I mean by ‘fantasy novel’, I am referring to those books that are often shelved along with science fiction in your local Borders, and which can sometimes be confused with romance novels from the covers, even though this is a HUGE mistake. (I think.)
But first, some basic principles for what makes a good fantasy novel:
1. A good fantasy novel follows the classic storyline. The main hero rises from obscurity to become powerful and respected; he (and it’s almost always a he, go figure) ends up together with a sassy, powerful, gorgeous girl way above his pay-grade (or several girls! I’m looking at you, Rand Al’Thor); and he plays the crucial role in the defeat of some newly-returned ancient evil of apocalyptic proportions.
2. It’s not just one novel, it’s a multi-volume series. Very long but not overwhelmingly long. Three to Five volumes at 500-800 pages a pop is generally the sweet spot. The point is to escape from the mundane normal life you lead (or, to put a positive and theological spin on it, to get in touch with the deeper truths about good and evil and the End Times that are hidden but powerful realities in the world, and with the power of giving yourself utterly over to a cause, especially when you have friends to help you along the way (church)). You need a lot of pages to get a really satisfactory escape.
3. It is well-written. ‘What?’ I hear you say. ‘Isn’t well-written fantasy novel an oxymoron?’ The obvious answer is yes. Fantasy novels usually go astray when they try to get too literary. Their job is to evoke in very straightforward language an exciting world, and a story that follows a standard pattern within that world. This means that compared with real literature, or even average literature, they are pretty bad. But there is an art to writing a fantasy novel well. The language needs to be imaginatively evocative, but without trying too hard.
You can tell a good fantasy novel from a bad one a mile away, mainly by the character and place names. If you are unable to see the quality difference between good names like Tyrion Lannister (a mistreated prince), Asmodean (corrupted sorcerer, now very evil), Minas Morgul (a dark and evil city), and The Stone of Farewell (a sad and ancient meeting spot where great things once happened), and bad names like Sir Sparhawk (a hero we are somehow supposed to take seriously), Applecore (a feisty fairy), Rooftoppers (tiny beings, known only to a few, who live on a castle roof), The Elf Queen of Shannara (one of the worst titles in a sea of bad novel titles), and Tebreille din Gelyn South Wind (a magical sailor lady)… then fantasy novels unfortunately are not for you.
4. The writer pulls off the ending well. This is extremely difficult, because there is basically only one way to end a long fantasy series well: the defeat of the apocalyptic evil has to entail a massive personal cost to the hero, on a scale unprecedented in the earlier books in the series (which were already full of massive personal cost to the hero), and it needs to have a basically happy but bittersweet resolution. Usually this cost involves dying and coming back in some way (again, go figure), but it can be accomplished other ways. A magical object is often involved, but this can’t be the sole literary device for the ending, or it is too obvious and boring. Only one fantasy series really pulls all of these principles off well—I’ll give you a hint, the title has something to do with sovereignty over hand jewelry, and apparently took place in New Zealand—and even that one doesn’t really have the girl part (bummer). Actually, our number two (see below) does a good job too. Anyway this dearth of quality may or may not be an indicator of how lame fantasy novels really are, even though they are awesome…
With these principles in mind then, at last, my top five multi-volume fantasy series:
1. That one whose title I couldn’t remember, involving the jewelry and the small people, by that English professor guy.
2. Harry Potter. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. This means that you, O reader who loves Harry Potter but not other fantasy novels, are geekier than you know. And you, O geeky fanboy fantasy writer, have been trumped by a children’s author.
3. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams. It’s not the best on any of our four counts, but it does the best job of being very solid without any huge flaws. It actually ends!
4. The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. Yes, this stupid series is way too long (I remember once joking with DZ when I was a kid that the final volume might not come out until I was in college! …I am now five years out of college and it is not out yet), and it is not very good in the middle. But at its best, this series blows all but our number one out of the water, and the latest couple were actually quite good again. Jordan unfortunately passed away recently, and the final volume is being completed by some guy named Brandon Sanderson.
5. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Many would put this one in the number two or three spot, because Martin is a much better writer than anyone else currently in the field, and he has actually done something quite new and contemporary in intentionally muddying the line between who is a hero and who is a villain. The problem is that he violates principle number one pretty badly to do so, and in the end, let’s face it, if I wanted something dark and meandering and literary and cynical rather than cathartic and full of old-school good vs. evil awesomeness, I would not be reading a fantasy novel.