Wanted: some Professional Fantasy Authors

Time for a break from politics. In fact, I need a break from a lot of things. My brain is thrashing from too many tasks these days and as a result I am getting less done. Tim Ferris, the great deprecator of multi-tasking, suggests reading fiction at the end of the day to get free up the brain for a good night’s sleep.

I need a good bedtime story.

I used to read science fiction, and still do at times, but I’m getting old. Cyberpunk and singularities disturb me, and the latest generation of British SF writers (Reynolds, Banks) are downright gross. These days I just want to escape.  I like the sense of wonder of SF, but I have enough of computers in my day job. Thus, my current hankering for fantasy.

So, I go to the local Books a Million and see what looks popular. Hmmmm, 5 volumes so far and each one is 600 pages…that’s a lot of bedtime stories…I’ll give this one a try…and come of with a real STINKER.  I have started four difference series by four different authors and quit each a fraction into the first volume. I’m stunned by the sheer awfulness of the writing.

I started with The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. It’s a cheap Tolkien ripoff. That’s OK. I bought it expecting a cheap knockoff of The Master. A variation on a good theme is good enough for me. I just want a decent bedtime story. But I want a story! Not an outline of a story!! The writing in this novel is bad. Stunningly bad. I wrote better in high school. This is not a boast. My stories back then were all rejected by real magazines and rightfully so.  The standards for science fiction short stories were higher than for fantasy epics at the time it would seem. Had I skipped writing science fiction stories and gone straight to fantasy novels I might be a wealthy author today.

So I go back to the bookstore and pick up the first book in David Eddings Belgeriad.Paragraph for paragraph the writing is a bit better, tolerable even, but the story is abysmal. His dark lord is evil because he wants some box or something that he isn’t supposed to have. Why anyone cares is left unsaid. The prelude gives us too much information so we can anticipate every “revelation” many pages before our hapless main character gets the news. After following a child getting kept in the kitchen and otherwise herded around by an aunt who is obviously a great sorceress from ancient times for a hundred pages or so, I quit. Spoiler alert (for those with sub room temperature IQs): the main character is the last of a royal line hidden away from bad guys.

So I tried Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Lot’s of people like it according to shelf space his works take up. Here, at least, we start with a bit of action, and the dark lord is actually a bad guy. And so our hero, who conveniently turns out to be THE ONE, teams up with the great wizard in exile, and a ranger character who carries enough weapons to weight down a gorilla. It’s as if an eleven year old were to write a high fantasy novel and then a team of Associated Content writers paid by the word flushed it out.

My latest attempt is Tad Williams’ Shadowmarch. The reviews say he can write. Well, so could Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, I guess. Shadowmarch wins hands down for sheer quantity of similes per page. Like Eddings, Williams reveals way too much in his two clunky preludes before getting on with the actual story. I harrumph as only a middle aged over caffeinated PhD physicist can harrumph and File 13 this one with the rest.

What’s the deal? Years ago I was once apologetic to the English major types I knew for reading science fiction instead of “real” literature. To me a good story was about a gripping plot and interesting ideas vs. flowery language and subtle characterization. Little did I know! Even H. Beam Piper at his worst (cf. Space Viking) was positively Shakespearean compared to the above. I can think of no science fiction  novel as poorly written as these four fantasies.

Why are today’s heirs of Tolkien, Zelazny, and Vance? Who today can write at least as well as Robert E. Howard? I am not asking for perfection or even excellence, just a decent bit of escapism. I could even settle for Robert Jordan if someone could edit out the reams of clothing descriptions and bickering sessions that crowd out his (rambling and inconsistent) story. I actually made it through a half dozen or so of his Wheel of Time books before throwing the last in the fire when the author decided to stretch one day’s “action” into an entire volume.

Before ya’ll label me a complete grump, let me mention two excellent fantasy authors I have come across in recent years. George R.R. Martin had a truly gripping story going with his Song of Fire and Ice series. Alas, I despair of his ever finishing it. Patrick Rothfus’ The Name of the Wind is most excellently written, and it isn’t warmed over Tolkien by any stretch. I’ll pay for the hardcover of Book 2 when it comes out.

But it isn’t out. So I need something else in the meantime. Who else is good?

8 Replies to “Wanted: some Professional Fantasy Authors”

  1. All I can tell you is what I’ve enjoyed. The one author I consistently enjoy is Raymond E. Feist. His Riftwar Saga (starting with the Magician duology) is a truly delightful set of coming-of-age stories set against the backdrop of magic, war, intrigue, heroism, and otherwise interesting stuff.

    His Serpentwar Saga is a considerably more mature set of tales that include considerably more murder, revenge, sex, more horrifying warfare… and commerce. Yes, commerce. The second book in that series, “Rise of a Merchant Prince”, is the gripping tale of a young man who take his mustering out pay, marries an aging moderately successful merchant’s “ugly daughter”, and carves out a commercial empire.

  2. Oh, and pretty much anything by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis is worth a read. They’re best known in my circle for their work in the Dragonlance setting (a D&D setting), but I prefer their Star of the Guardian series, probably best described as space opera.

  3. Maybe I should give Feist another try. I read the first 4 Riftwar books back in grad school. It was a bit too blatantly D&Dish for my taste. Silverthorn was perhaps the most blatant; I found myself visualing the author and his friends rolling dice. Then by the fourth book the hero becomes a 40th level magic user with godlike powers, and his friends similarly promoted. I had no interest in subsequent sequels.

    But at least Feist could write. I guess I should see what a more mature Feist is like. Since so many fantasies are multi-volume sequel fests these days, I feel compelled to start at the beginning, which can give a bad impression of an author’s talents. Robert Heinlein, Jack Vance, and C.M. Kornbluth all wrote some dreck before they got good. Heinlein was fortunate that editors refused to print his first (bad) novel until after he died. (But very much unlike the fantasies I snarl out in my post above, Heinlein’s badly written first novel did have quite a few interesting ideas in it.)

  4. Heh, my first read of Feist predates my first game of D&D. In other words, for me, D&D mimics the genre, not the other way around. For the most part, swords-and-sorcery fantasy (outside the “smart is bad, muscles are good” Conan style stuff) cross-pollinates heavily with D&D. Hearing your criticism of Feist, I can’t help but wonder what you would consider “good” fantasy. I’ve never really experienced genuine mental stimulation in the speculative fiction genre, outside the science-fiction genre.

  5. Really good fantasy: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, “Hobbit” and “Silmarillion.” Jack Vance’s Dying Earth Books and his Lyonesse trilogy. Vance also wrote some excellent fantasy shorts and a great deal of his sci fi reads like fantasy. C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books. Roger Zelazny’s Amber books. (The original series of 5 books. The follow on was of lesser quality.) Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road. Patrick Rothfuss’ “Name of the Wind” shows great promise.

    Next tier: the Harry Potter books. (Weak magic system, but strong plotting and characters.) A couple of Kornbluth’s short stories. Gene Wolf might be at this level. His plots are a bit weak but he cranks out the wonders.

    A notch down: Conan books. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant Chronicles. (Would be much better if shortened. Rather Kantian, but some sparkles of brilliance scattered around.) Jack Chalker’s Dancing Gods series.

    Another notch down: Fritz Lieber’s Fahferd [sp?] and Grey Mouser stories. Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos stories — at least the earlier ones.

    For dark fantasy which borders on horror, C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy is quite good. I’ve read one of Lovecraft’s books and found it quite gripping.

    Dungeons and Dragons is primarily inspired by Tolkien, Vance and Lieber. They are listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.

  6. A couple more dark fantasies worth reading: Harlan Ellison’s “Deathbird Stories” and Heinlein’s “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hogue” fit in the top notch.

    And sort of in between high fantasy and dark fantasy: Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood” and John Crowley’s “Little Big” fit somewhere between the second and third tier. Charles de Lint a notch or two down but still readable.

    John Myers Myers should go in the third tier.

  7. George R.R. Martin would be in the second tier with his Song of Fire and Ice saga, but I wonder if he’ll ever finish it.

    Of all the writers I have mentioned, only Chalker can be accused of imitating D&D, and Chalker is doing it intentionally as satire. (His Nathan Brazil stories are even more blatant, but not nearly as fun.)

  8. I too enjoyed the song of fire and ice series, I would implore reading on in the sword of truth novels, even skipping number 1, the get much more interesting. I also enjoyed the pendragon cycle by Stephen Lawhead. An interesting take on Arthur.

    If you don’t mind alternate history I find Harry Turtledove to be a fascinating read (he’s normally in the fantasy section)

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