I have long loved reading fantasy novels, and many of them have significantly influenced my own writing. I enjoy books in this genre for their exciting plots, their memorable characters, the sense of escapism and their bold, challenging ideas - and I have tried to achieve these in my own work.
I have too many favourite fantasy books to possibly discuss in one blog post (honourable mentions for books just missing out from my list include the staggering Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and Elidor by Alan Garner) and I have blogged previously about the massive influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on my writing (you can read the post here) but I thought I would discuss some of the fantasy novels that have most influenced and inspired me.
Memory, Sorrow and Thorn - Tad Williams
I have read and enjoyed many epic fantasy series, and although often enjoyable, many appear to be reheated versions of The Lord of the Rings, recycling many of the same elements. With an epic secondary world (Osten Ard), complex plotting, a cast of hundreds, battles and fantastical monsters, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn could, on the surface, be yet another fantasy saga descended from the Tolkien tradition, but in many ways it reverses key elements and tropes of The Lord of the Rings.
For example, yes, there is a Dark Lord – the Sithi Storm King – but for all his evil, his actions are largely in response to appalling suffering inflicted upon his people. Good and evil within Osten Ard cannot be identified solely by race or country – there are few easy answers in this land and there are troubling, nightmarish secrets to be uncovered…
I read each volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn over several weeks and found the whole saga utterly absorbing. It is so intelligently and boldly constructed, and challenges many of the assumptions of the genre – but please do not think it is a dry read; far from it, there are many thrilling moments and the characters are three dimensional and memorable. Rather than reheating Tolkien’s masterpiece, Tad Williams’s series builds upon the foundations of the genre to create something original and truly special.
Harry Potter – J.K. Rowling
The joy of reading as a child is a different, perhaps more intense, experience than that of reading as an adult. I can remember spending many happy hours reading books such as Watership Down and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and the frustration when I had to put the book down for a meal or for sleep!
I was (obviously!) too old to read the Harry Potter books as a child, but the story still engrossed me. The sheer quality of the storytelling – the superb plotting and rich characterisation – cannot be denied. J.K. Rowling’s magical universe is beautifully realised, drawing cleverly upon her knowledge of mythology, folklore and alchemy. Rowling’s books should serve as an inspiration to any writer – they are written with love, with passion and a fierce determination to explore important themes about life, death, power and the importance of love and friendship.
I wonder how many children have had a lifelong love of reading sparked by the Harry Potter books? I feel certain that J.K. Rowling's books will love a wonderful legacy. And for me, it is now a great joy to see my daughter fall in love the stories and the vivid characters within – she has so many exciting things to discover in the world of Harry Potter!
The Royal Changeling – John Whitbourn
This is a hugely enjoyable tale set in an alternate seventeenth century England. Charles II, the Duke of Monmouth and even King Arthur appear, along with a host of supernatural characters – laced with witty, black humour, the story is briskly told and the period is wonderfully evoked. This mix of history and fantasy has been a great influence on my writing: for example, for The Tree of Life trilogy, reading The Royal Changeling encouraged me to set the series outside of the traditional fantasy medieval setting - mixing muskets and monsters felt, for me, a delicious combination!
I cannot recommend The Royal Changeling enough, and I would love to see the book, and Whitbourn’s other work, better known.
Gormenghast trilogy – Mervyn Peake
The visionary artist and writer Mervyn Peake’s majestic creation is often compared to The Lord of the Rings, but it is a very different beast. A work of staggering originality, dreamlike, layered and gothic, and full of memorable imagery, the Gormenghast trilogy is truly a book to lose yourself in. It contains some of the best descriptive writing I have read, with the massive crumbling edifice of Gormenghast castle brought vividly to life, as is the madness of the ritual-ridden society dwelling within.
The characters – Lord Sepulchrave, Flay, Swelter, Steerpike and Fuchsia, to name just a few – stayed with me long after reading the books. Yes, they are larger than life, but their foibles and failings are only too human, and all the more troubling for this.
I continue to be awed by the scale and ambition of Peake’s achievement, and I feel sure the Gormenghast trilogy will continue to be discovered and enjoyed by generations to come.
What is your favourite fantasy novel? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for FREE, from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iBooks or Smashwords.
I have also previously blogged about the reasons why I write fantasy fiction - check out the blog post here.