Wednesday, May 8, 2019

067 10 Foundational Works of Fantasy

10 foundational fantasy novels that I think everyone who plays adventure games should read in their lifetime

The Rules

10 books only
  • Single, self-contained books only (not recommending series, but books might be part of a series)
  • Not concerned with restrictive genre definitions (some will have sf/horror elements)
  • Written before the 80s (books that influenced early game designers)
  • Only things I've read and can speak for personally
  • Ignoring Mythic Fantasies, Epic Poems, Fairy Tales, & Folklore: Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Beowulf, The Inferno, Le Morte de Arthur, A Thousand and One Nights, The Fairy Queene, Grimm's Fairy Tales...
  • No anthologies by multiple authors (e.g. Swords Against Darkness 1977), and only one work by an one author

The List 

Presented in chronological publishing order (sort of - earliest published story, not necessarily book date) and numbered for convenience, but without any intended "rank"

1. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

  • Last one picked!
  • First of the Barsoom series featuring John Carter of Mars
  • Human transplanted into another world
  • Heroic adventure, long on imagination, short on intelligent plotting
  • Super cool creatures
2. Zothique by Clark Ashton Smith, 1970 (1932)
  • CAS did almost all of his serious fiction writing in a single decade, the 30s
  • Empire of the Necromancers, 1932
  • Like Howard, he was a pen pal of Lovecraft
  • Largest cycle of stories written by CAS, dying earth genre
  • Filled with colorful, often archaic language and incredible, unparalleled fantastic imagery
  • Recommended for its richness of language and imagery - pure inventiveness
3. The Coming of Conan the Cimmerean by Robert E. Howard, 2002 (1932)
  • What is the best introduction to Conan?
  • Original works, unedited and unexpanded by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter
  • Patrice Louinet (editor), three volume series for Del Rey
  • The Phoenix on the Sword, The Tower of the Elephant, Queen of the Black Coast, and Black Colossus
  • A more intelligent Conan than the big lummox portrayed by Arnold Schwarzeneger
  • The Hyborian Age
  • Recommended for raw, original sword & sorcery fantasy
4. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1937
  • A children's book, but not a children's book
  • His tightest construction, focused chapters, descriptive & pastoral without overdoing it
  • Fairy tale creatures brought to life and woven into a realistic world.
  • Read aloud. You need voices for Bilbo, Gandalf, Thorin, Balin, Smaug, and Gollum.
  • Recommended for good fun, a more moralistic, "homely" fantasy, intro into the world-building wonder that is LotR. If you want something that is more pure world building and adult in tone, perhaps try The Silmarillion. (LotR is the sweet spot between?)
5. The Sword in the Stone (book 1 of The Once and Future King) by T.H. White, 1938
  • One of the first and best fantasies based on Arthurian legend
  • Deals with Arthur as a young man (not found in Mallory's Le Morte de Arthur)
  • Arthur is tutored by Merlin, who lives backwards through time
  • Part of his training is to be turned into various animals to learn important lessons
  • Historical details (about things like falconry) but without historical accuracy and with anachronisms
  • " deliberately anachronistic humor, affectionate mockery of the source text, and a commentary on totalitarianism"
  • Recommended for fantasy as commentary, Arthurian content
6. The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, 1950
  • Dying sun, sky of pink to deep blue, strange plants and animals
  • Decadent, shrinking human populations
  • Powerful wizards with a small, but potent catalog of "scientific" spells
  • Artificial humans grown by arcane means
  • Ancient technologies of obscure origin and dangerous functions
  • Recommended for ground-breaking setting material, cool ideas
7. Two Sought Adventure by Fritz Leiber, 1957 (1939)
  • Jewels in the Forest, 1939
  • Excellent characters, whimsical adventures, dark and eerie incidents (Lovecraftian influence)
  • Revised in 1970 as Swords Against Death - added references to Vlana and Ivrain
  • Lankhmar!
  • Lyrical language
  • Recommended for classic Sword & Sorcery fare, humor, witty language, horror elements
8. The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson, 1954
  • Revised in 1971 (recommended)
  • Two protagonists...
  • The son of a king stolen by the elves and replaced with a changeling, Valgard, made from a troll (anger issues)
  • The true, human son and heir, Skafloc, raised by elves
  • War between dark, fey elves and angry, ugly trolls
  • Norse themes, encroachment of Christianity
  • Recommended for a dark fantasy rooted in Norse Mythology with a more grey morality than most fantasy.
9. Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock, 1972 (1961)
  • The Dreaming City, 1961; Stealer of Souls, 1963
  • Elric the 8th, 428th emperor of Melnibone, the last island fortress of the elves, surrounded by a sea maze and protected by dragons
  • Elric is an albino, physically weak and sustained by drugs and treatments, but mentally strong.
  • He sees that his hedonistic, decadent kinsmen are caught up in the past - in the glory days of their imperialism - and recognizes the strength of the new kingdoms
  • Allies himself with a chaos lord out of necessity
  • Recommended for GREAT imagery, world building, and (building on Anderson's Broken Sword perhaps) cool dark, amoral elves.
10. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin, 1968
  • Short, coming of age story about a young man who lives on a backwater island but has great innate magical potential
  • LeGuin is an amazing wordsmith
  • Non-white protagonists
  • Interesting and coherent magic system based on discovering and memorizing the true names of things. A wizard spends his life uncovering the hidden, true names of people, creatures, and even natural forces like the wind and waves, in order to evoke them in spells. But there is a catch, every action has a reaction; filling your sails with a helpful wind might cause a terrible storm elsewhere in the world.
  • Nod to The Tombs of Atuan as an amazing second book in the series.
  • Recommended for powerful, focused writing, cool dragons, and a neat magic system.

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