Patrick Samphire recently said on his blog: “Choosing favourite books is like choosing your favourite children; you really can’t have more than five of them.“
I rather like that thought and it encouraged me to name my own five favorites.
1. “Tigana”, Guy Gavriel Kay
I keep telling people that this is one of the best books I have ever read, bar none, without any genre corrals or anything like that. just simply that – one of the best books I have ever read, period, EVER. And the reasons why boil down to two reasons.
One, the characters. This is a book full of characters who are solid, three-dimensional, who carry grudges and vows and honour and pain, and who *change* with all of these things in play. Kay understands what makes people change, and this is huge, HUGE, and it plays an enormous part in this book. There are no “good guys” and “bad guys” here, not exclusively, everybody does things for what appear to be good and valid reasons to THEM, and the reader, even if not expected to approve those reasons, is invited to understand them. This matters enormously.
Perhaps the best exemplar of this is Dianora. I am in awe of a writer who came up with the character of Dianora. Read the book and you will understand why – but let me just say that this is a woman who puts into play a horrendously complicated and meticulously planned chain of events whose ultimate outcome entails her taking revenge for the death of her country and her family at the hands of a great enemy… and is then hamstrung by something so unexpected, so completely inescapable, that it nearly grinds her into glass dust. Oh, if you haven’t read this book, if you are a reader looking for an experience of a lifetime, if you are a writer who wants to know how to make a character immortal, go read “Tigana”, just for Dianora. Trust me on this.
Two… and this is deeply personal for me … I don’t know how someone like Guy Gavriel Kay, who comes from the kind of calm, civilised, privileged background that he does, who is polite and Canadian, knows what it feels like to lose your country, and your soul. But he does. HE DOES. And he tells that story in “Tigana”. It reaches deep inside of me and wrings my heart until it screams. This, my friends, is the best kind of fantasy. This is the kind of fantasy that is TRUE.
2. “Lord of the Rings”, J R R Tolkien
I read and enjoyed “The Hobbit”, initially, but it was a light and almost fluffy kind of book – yes, it had hints of a greater grandeur but they tended to be erased by the guffaws of the Dwarven Dinner Party at Bag End (“At your service!”) or Bilbo Baggins prancing aorund the woods singing “Attercop!” to annoy a bunch of spiders. But it wasn’t until I picked up a copy of the first book in the LOTR trilogy that I really felt like I had come home. Things… things… clicked for me. I drank it in, in great gulping draughts, and the potion changed me dramatically. I became a fantasy writer because of this book, probably.
Oh, there were other reasons – but this one, this one gelled it, cemented it. Here was a world that HAD BEEN CREATED WHOLLY AND COMPLETELY FROM THE WRITER’S OWN VISION AND IMAGINATION. It had been done – I held the evidence in my hands, in my heart, in my head. It could be done again. By me. And once I had that bit between my teeth there was no stopping me at all.
3. The Chronicles of Amber, Roger Zelazny
The first five books, really. The second five, well, I read them, I liked them well enough, but it was the first five that grabbed me and held me. Again, for several reasons.
One, there was the seamlessness of the whole thing. THESE FIVE VOLUMES WERE A PERFECT CIRCLE. Book Five ended where Book One begins, but because of all the stuff that you’d just read in between that beginning and that end the beginning now gained a WHOLE NEW PERSPECTIVE, and it just demanded that you pick the first book up again and begin from the beginning. And this could go on forever. It was the freaking Worm Ouroboros in literary form, and I was smitten smitten smitten smitten.
Two, well, the COMPLEXITY of it all. I have never really liked “simple” books, they merely end up being predictable and annoying. There was nothing predictable in the Amber family – and I loved the idea of the “cards”, the Amber Trunps, and all that went on that was directly tied into them. Directly and indirectly, the imagination and the ideas behind these books lodged somewhere deep into my creative soul and I have never been free of them since. I owe Roger Zelazny for that, a huge debt. (And I was lucky enough to able to tell him so, before he died, too soon, too young.) I have what has to be an original paperback edition of these books, and I brought #1 for Zelazny to sign, that time that I met him. Even he did a double take and expressed astonishment that any copies of THAT version were still circulating. THAT is how long ago I met these books, and fell in love.
4. “Dune”, Frank Herbert
Once again, complexity… but I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with these books. I loved the first one, the original Dune, because of the depth of the worldbuilding, because of the organic way that the story and the milieu fitted together – it all made sense, it was connected, it was soul-stirring.
And then the books kind of began a slow slide, and that has never stopped, only became steeper when Frank stopped writing the Dune books and the franchise was taken over by the heirs who really should have known better. Some horses, when they die, are truly dead, and should be beaten no longer – and this one is mere articulated bones, by now.
The thing that I confess never made sense to me, viscerally, even when the story made set-ups and explanations for it, was the reason behind the greening of Arrakis and the bringing of water to Arrakis AT ALL. Yes, it was a harsh world and tough to live in. But doing the greening/watering thing would have spelled the end of the great worms, and I kind of… rooted for them. It’s almost ludcirous to call them underdogs, but I couldn’t help feeling some sort of grim pity for their fate if everyone else had their way. Those creatures NEEDED a desert PLANET to survive, in the way that they gloriously existed right at that beginning of the Dune saga. Anything less, and they would be either diminished, or extinct. And I didn’t want to see that happen.
So, there. With qualifications. But right up there in the top five, anyway.
5. “Fool on the Hill”, Matt Ruff
So okay, I”ll save the last for a shout out to a writer who has since become a friend. But his inclusion in this list is by no means any kind of literary “nepotism”, and is not influenced in the least by the fact that I very much like the person behind the story here.
The story, itself, is important.
Let me just tell you how I first tripped over this. I was living in South Africa, writing book reviews for the local newspaper – and it was a pretty slapdash operation at best. They’d get a box of books, and the coterie of reviewers would kind of drop in at random intervals – and if they happened to arrive when a box turned up they got to cherry pick the best stuff or else, if they arrived at the tail end, they’d get left with the dregs – it was the luck of the draw.
As it happened, someone else snaffled “Fool” first – but didn’t seem to connect with it too well. So I asked if I could take a shot at it, and the hardcover was duly passed on to me, second-hand as both the book and a review chance.
And I dived into it and sank without a trace.
A three-fold narrative that involved events as they unfolded in the “human” stratum of Cornell University, with real humans, interleaved by the story set in the animal underbelly of Cornell and involved a Dog Convocation (I chortled out loud at the Dog Dean. You will too) and a story set amongst the Cornell Fae – and they all get tied together by an overlay of the trope of a thousand monkeys typing on a thousand typewriters to produce a Story, and the ghostly Founder of Cornell wandering about talking to $Deity$ and discussing everything in a kind of delightful Greek Chorus – dear, GOD, this was just plain briliant stuff.
And it was also banging-head-on-brick-wall time when I found out that the author of this magnificence was twenty six years old at the time (or something along those lines – I don’t have the copy of the book right in front me to check right now, that is as memory serves) and that it was unlikely if not impossible that I would ever write with this ease, facility, wit, humour, drama and general genius, if I lived to be three times that age. Matt Ruff has since proved that he was no flash in the pan – if you want to see the more mature edition of the novelist who produced “Fool on the Hill” I highly recommend “Set This House in Order”, which isn’t on this list only because it has only five spots to fill.
But seriously. Do yourself a favour and go pick up Matt Ruff’s books. They are astounding. And they will never leave you; these are no fair-weather friends. These are things that you will treasure when you are the same age he was when he wrote them, and also when you are three times that age. He. Really. Is. That. Good. (And Matt, if you’re reading this, *I MEAN IT*.)
Want to play? I would love to know what your choices are.