I know, I know. Picking your favorite book feels like picking your favorite child. You love them all. But give it a try.
Here are mine, in generally random order. (Some of the items on the list are technically cheats, because they are trilogies or series in their own right.)
1. “Tigana”, Guy Gavriel Kay
This simply 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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. 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 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.
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.
Want to play? I would love to know what your choices are.