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Top 5 Books Every Aspiring Fantasy Author Should Read-Opinions Please


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The title asks it all. This may have been asked before even. If so, kindly point me to the right thread.

 

I'm looking for writing inspiration, to see how others have tackled the task, but there are so many bad fantasy novels out there and so little time to sift. 

 

It all started when I bought 2 books. The first had tons of stellar reviews-The Thinblade. Honestly... it's so poorly written I can't get past the first few chapters (the villain sounds terrifying though). I next read The Savior's Champion. It was better, once you weed out the sexual parts (lots to skip here) and pc agenda.

 

So far, the only good modern fantasy I've read imo is the Mistborn series.

 

So, besides the immortal LOTR, what do you think should be on the list? The floor is yours!

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I've tried so many modern Fantasy books in my time,  I read maybe a few chapters and put them down.  It's part of the reason why I started writing my own.

 

I've tried the first book in the Mistborn series.  The writing is OK.  But I quickly got bored with the story.  I'm a big believer that when it comes to magic, some things are best left unsaid, and left to the arcane.

 

I've heard reviews of The Savior's Champion.  It sounds to me like chick-lit with gore and magic added.  That's not my cup of tea.

 

The best modern Fantasy book that I've read, and finished, was George R. R, Martin's A Game of Thrones (the first book in the series).  First: his prolog is probably the best I've ever read (of course, I'm not a reader, so your mileage may vary).  Second, he maintains the mystery to magic, as well as creating tension with every chapter.  I also like his writing style.  I'll be honest: I couldn't care less for all of the political machinations that go on, which is the bulk of he  book.  

 

Eragon was just OK.  They way the author told the story, the sentences started to form a cadence, page after page.  I found that - above all things in that book - annoying.  Secondly, I'm done with dragons.  Everybody has to have a dragon.  Everybody's got to ride a dragon.  It's like many authors can't think past a dragon.  Hence, one of the reasons why there are no dragons front-and-center in my books.  In the series I'm working on, there are dragons, but they are pretty much kept off stage.  Likewise, in the other stories I've penned - no dragons.

 

I like to think of Dragons in the traditional sense.  An untamed force of nature that ruins and rampages wherever it goes.  Something awe-inspiring and terrifying.  Not your own bat-winged Gulfstream.

 

I tried some R. A. Salvadore - one book, and I was done.  He is a big Dungeons and Dragons writer.  While I liked his style, the one book I read started way too predictable.  By chapter 3, I was done.  Not interested.

 

I still refer to the classics like Robert E. Howard.  Conan, and all of the people who wrote it, is both entertaining and evocative.

 

What modern Fantasy misses, in my opinion, is purpose.  The reason we still love classic Science Fiction and Fantasy is because these stories were about much grander things.  Now, they are retellings of Beauty and the Beast with sex and magic.  Thanks, but no.

 

Or maybe I'm just out of step with 90% of the readers out there?  I dunno.

 

 

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It depends on your purpose. If you want to sell books, you should look at books that sold very well. One that I would suggest looking at that most folks don't think of is Green Ember. It is about bunnies. With swords and magic. Not kidding. 

 

These books will, by and large, be what authors often think of as "poorly written" because we focus so much on the little picture of line edits and prose style. But, these books that succeed all have engaging, page-turning stories that keep readers guessing about what will happen to characters that fulfill well known tropes and roles with the genre the book is written for.

 

By the way, I think "Fantasy" is way more of a setting than it is a genre. Many traditional fantasies are Hero's Journey for genre, but certainly not all or even most anymore. Game of Thrones is an example of a fantasy that is not a Hero's Journey.

 

If you're looking for what you should read to tell you how to tailor the book you're currently writing, you should look at fantasy set books that match your genre, AND not fantasy set books that are still in your genre. If you want to sell books, you should pick a genre. People what to know what they're getting into when they decide to buy and spend lots of their precious free time reading your book.

 

For example, let's say that you decide to write a fantasy book where the main plot involves characters falling in love but has no sinful filth in it. That's a "Clean Romance." You should read some clean romances to see what people are expecting in them. If instead the plot centers around facing down life and death challenges and goes from one fight or flight crazy situation to the next, that's and "Action/Adventure" plot. Or, maybe it is all about a mystery that needs to be solved using magic, etc.

 

Right? So, Fantasy can actually be all sorts of kinds of plots, and that's what you've got to be careful of. You've got to do a good job with your setting and your plot and weave the two together. I think plot comes first to be honest. Great stories can be set in many different places and times. A great story can carry people past details and window dressing that would normally distract them or pull them out of the flow of the book.

 

Ack! Look at the time...

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The Neverending Story by Michael Ende is a fantastic fantasy. It is a Christian refutation of Buddhism, and is brilliantly done overall. Highly recommend.

 

Phantastes by George MacDonald is a classic every fantasy author should read. 

 

So far, I have never found a contemporary book that I've really liked. (Maybe I should check out the Mistborn series!) Perhaps if you like thrillers or dark fantasy (think Hunger Games), Map of Shadows by J.F. Penn could be interesting. It is definitely a page turner, but too dark and suspenseful for my taste. I also am suspicious of it nearly supporting paganism, if not positively.

 

Brandon Mull seems to be an author worth checking out, but I haven't read his works.

 

Of course, The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the top fantasy series.

 

I also love J.R.R. Tolkien's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mainly because I had an excellent literature teacher, and it's about a character who upholds a moral standard rather than falls by default. Contemporary books don't use this storyline these days.

 

Other books I've been recommended but I haven't read yet are:

Fairest

The Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon

 

 

Hope this helps! 

Edited by Catherine Rohsner
Book recommendation edit
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Great question, @RockyMtn Gal.

 

I'd recommend the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series by Tad Williams. One warning, though: it's not Christian. But I really enjoyed it and am about to re-read it.

 

I've only read the first of Brandon Sandersons' Mistborn series. It was good, and worth a read.

 

Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind. Beautiful. Engaging story. A magic system that maintains the mystery but is also grounded in logic. Only downside: it's the first in a trilogy and he still hasn't published the last book. Bummer.

 

Other than that (and ignoring all the classics, LOTR, Hobbit, Narnia etc.), I'd agree with @Thomas Davidsmeier: you need to try and find books that match the genre you're trying to write in. If you can find fantasy books in the same genre, then read those.

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If you are looking for well-written fantasy ("looking for inspiration") and are willing to overlook some thematic content that isn't Christian, here are a few books that I think were very well done.

1. I second @Catherine Rohsner on George MacDonald's Phantastes. The language is a little oddly worded at times (it was published in 1858), but the story and the imagination embedded in it are first rate. The story was a significant influence on C.S. Lewis and I would bet money that Tolkien read it too as there are elements that could easily lead to some of what is in the LOTR.

2. I would also suggest MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin

3. Till we Have Faces is a book by C.S. Lewis that retells the Eros and Psyche myth. So, it might not be pure fantasy, but it is a well-done, mythical story.

4. The Pawn of Prophecy  by David Eddings is a one of the most interesting fantasy's I have read. It is book one of a series called the Belgariad. This is one that is very well-done as a high fantasy, but also one where you will need some tolerance for non-christian themes as the author has a pantheon of gods in the story. But the rest of the world is complex and nicely architected.

5. As an example of another well-written Fantasy, try Piers Anthony's, A Spell for Chameleon. It is the first of his Xanth novels. They are what I would classify as light fantasy. Their interest lies in the imaginative world he builds, which, as the series goes is both clever and yet full of light hearted puns.   

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On 10/13/2020 at 11:16 AM, Jeff Potts said:

The Savior's Champion.  It sounds to me like chick-lit with gore and magic added.  That's not my cup of tea.

Pretty much.

It's interesting to a point, but I wouldn't offer it as a good read to anyone. 

Lots of junk to hop over too.

 

On 10/13/2020 at 11:16 AM, Jeff Potts said:

The best modern Fantasy book that I've read, and finished, was George R. R, Martin's A Game of Thrones (the first book in the series).  First: his prolog is probably the best I've ever read (of course, I'm not a reader, so your mileage may vary).

I started that and was very very impressed by his writing style.

I may consider finishing it, but I'm leery after hearing about some of the content.

We'll see. 

 

I agree that Eragon was ok. The last book especially felt rushed, though I do like the idea of how the mc beat the villain. 

 

On 10/13/2020 at 11:16 AM, Jeff Potts said:

What modern Fantasy misses, in my opinion, is purpose.  The reason we still love classic Science Fiction and Fantasy is because these stories were about much grander things.  Now, they are retellings of Beauty and the Beast with sex and magic.

Didn't you know? Sex scenes magically fix weak plots, shallow characters, and poor writing. 

 

 

 

 

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On 10/13/2020 at 4:08 PM, Thomas Davidsmeier said:

If you're looking for what you should read to tell you how to tailor the book you're currently writing, you should look at fantasy set books that match your genre, AND not fantasy set books that are still in your genre. If you want to sell books, you should pick a genre. People what to know what they're getting into when they decide to buy and spend lots of their precious free time reading your book.

Honestly, I just want to write what I have well. I'm less concerned about fitting the story into a particular mold (perhaps I'll eat my words later, but for now...). 

 

I'm looking for fantasy examples simply because it is the closest match to what I have. Really and truly, I'm retelling myth-technically not fantasy according to my understanding. 

 

I guess I'm just looking for fresh ideas--not ripping off an author's ideas mind you.

Again, just seeing how others constructed, developed, and wrote their work.

 

 

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23 hours ago, Catherine Rohsner said:

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende is a fantastic fantasy. It is a Christian refutation of Buddhism, and is brilliantly done overall. Highly recommend.

I had no idea!

Hm, learned something new.

 

23 hours ago, Catherine Rohsner said:

So far, I have never found a contemporary book that I've really liked. (Maybe I should check out the Mistborn series!) Perhaps if you like thrillers or dark fantasy (think Hunger Games), Map of Shadows by J.F. Penn could be interesting. It is definitely a page turner, but too dark and suspenseful for my taste. I also am suspicious of it nearly supporting paganism, if not positively.

Well, *spoilers* Mistborn pretty much makes up a religion. It's pretty good imo.

 

23 hours ago, Catherine Rohsner said:

I also love J.R.R. Tolkien's Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, mainly because I had an excellent literature teacher, and it's about a character who upholds a moral standard rather than falls by default. Contemporary books don't use this storyline these days.

Really? I actually teach that myth in my history classes. 

Lots of fun stuff. Once the students get over the language, and get help understanding the symbolism, they end up really enjoying it.

 

...if only there was a way to get them to enjoy the Iliad too...

 

Thanks for the suggestions!

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14 hours ago, Claire Tucker said:

 

I'd recommend the Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn series by Tad Williams. One warning, though: it's not Christian. But I really enjoyed it and am about to re-read it.

Hm, I'm not familiar with those.

Worth a look. Thanks Claire!

 

Is that all one title, or 3 separate books?

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It's 3 (or 4) separate books. The Dragonbone Chair is the first one, The Stone of Farewell the second, and To Green Angel Tower the third. I think that the third one has been separated into 2 books, though, that's why it's either 3 or 4 books. 

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16 hours ago, RockyMtn Gal said:

Honestly, I just want to write what I have well. I'm less concerned about fitting the story into a particular mold (perhaps I'll eat my words later, but for now...). 

 

I'm looking for fantasy examples simply because it is the closest match to what I have. Really and truly, I'm retelling myth-technically not fantasy according to my understanding. 

 

First, I'd highly suggest you consider picking a genre and adapting what you have as close to it as possible. You'll probably find the exercise more fun than you expect, and you'll get more readers who will give your book a shot that way. (That's assuming you are motivated by having others read your work. You can write just for yourself if you want...)

 

Next, if you have a genre, you usually get a main conflict for free. For example, Action/Adventure = Life vs Death, Romance = Love vs Loss (Acceptance vs Rejection), Mystery = Justice vs Injustice, Horror=Life vs A Fate Worse Than Death, and I can't think of any of the others that the folks at Story Grid have laid out.

 

That main conflict is what helps you to tell if your scenes are working and your plot is moving along. Despite knowing this full well, I tried to break this rule in The Last Roll and have the conflict in a Thriller be Freedom vs. Imprisonment instead of the traditional Life vs Death or A Fate Worse Than Death. Honestly, I think that was a big mistake. The story is a good story, but it won't give Thriller readers what they're expecting. The description doesn't sound like a proper Thriller, and so it doesn't work (or sell) as such. Because it doesn't fit a genre, the description just doesn't ring true to form in any particular group of readers' ears. This just makes it much harder to sell it to them.

 

Structurally, I think it also lead me to have some poor scenes in the book that didn't move the way they should have because the Freedom vs. Imprisonment as an actual focus isn't quite high enough or low enough at the ends to stretch out to a full spectrum. Life vs. Death is much better as a value to have swing.

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@Thomas Davidsmeier, another Story Grid fan! So nice to know :)

 

@RockyMtn Gal, what Thomas is saying is true. If you take a look at the Story Grid website, you'll soon hear about the "five-leaf genre clover". Each leaf of the clover represents a decision that every story teller must make in regard to each story they write - "fantasy" isn't counted as a genre but rather represents what's called the reality "leaf". In other words, when a reader picks up your book, are they dealing with the real world or a made up one? The actual genre content "leaf" is where we make a decision as to what type of story we're telling. This includes Horror, Action/Adventure, Thriller, Romance, Crime, Western, War ... and the list goes on. So when writing fantasy, you can be writing a Fantasy Horror (which then should have a monster present and follow all the conventions of a Horror story while including a fantasy world), a Fantasy Crime (which will, once again, have a fantasy world and possibly magic but have all the elements of a Crime story present), or a Fantasy Thriller (which should give the adrenaline rush that accompanies a thriller, while the story is set in a fictional world).

 

Looking at it like this, the term "fantasy" actually deals more with the setting than it does with the story content. It's the backdrop against which the story takes place. Which genre the story fits into is dictated by the central conflict. Identifying the central conflict can be tricky, because there is both the external conflict and the internal conflict that are going on at the same time. But with a little bit of thought, you can untangle the two from each other. Ask "what's at stake for my character personally or emotionally?" Think about the movie Gladiator. What's at stake for Maximus personally is inner peace (this is something that comes up in various conversations that he has), and the big question through the story is whether or not he will sacrifice a peaceful afterlife by acting dishonorably and using methods that Commodus would. Then ask, "what's at stake externally/for everyone else if my character fails?" Externally, what's at stake in Gladiator is Freedom. But Maximus has to risk his life for that freedom, meaning that the story and the scenes making it up are turning on Life and Death, making the story an Action Story even while it would be categorized as a Historical Fiction.

 

I'm really sorry if this post is overwhelming; The Story Grid is like that when you first start taking a look at it. But what it does is give you a foundation you can build your stories on and know that they will work. As to it being formulaic, approaching writing like this, just think of architecture: the foundations of a building might all look the same, while the buildings themselves look different and are designed for different purposes. Paying attention to genre is the foundation; fleshing out your characters and themes within the story is what makes each book unique.

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On 10/15/2020 at 2:55 PM, Thomas Davidsmeier said:

 

Have them act out the battle scenes with foam spears and swords and wooden shields. Just a possibility...

Lol, we do for the battle of Thermopyle actually.

I have them march in phalanx formation too.

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On 10/14/2020 at 8:56 PM, RADerdeyn said:

I second @Catherine Rohsner on George MacDonald's Phantastes

That's 2 then.

I'll add it to the list.

 

On 10/14/2020 at 8:56 PM, RADerdeyn said:

. Till we Have Faces is a book by C.S. Lewis that retells the Eros and Psyche myth. So, it might not be pure fantasy, but it is a well-done, mythical story

That might be a good match then.

 

Thanks for the suggestions!

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For those interested, I stumbled upon TIME’s list of top fantasy books nominated by best selling fantasy writers. Thought it might be worth a look. When you click on each book, they give a description.

https://time.com/collection/100-best-fantasy-books/?fbclid=IwAR3FAEGaVuQXmz597dSnUYZylkBfU9OxTkNoRtLk7w0GY2avcaOk7Nv-l-g
 

Personally, I enjoyed Wrinkle in Time and The Inquisitor’s Tale - children’s fantasy with Christian subplots.

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On 10/15/2020 at 4:04 PM, Thomas Davidsmeier said:

Next, if you have a genre, you usually get a main conflict for free. For example, Action/Adventure = Life vs Death, Romance = Love vs Loss (Acceptance vs Rejection), Mystery = Justice vs Injustice, Horror=Life vs A Fate Worse Than Death, and I can't think of any of the others that the folks at Story Grid have laid out

 

On 10/16/2020 at 6:17 AM, Claire Tucker said:

The Story Grid is like that when you first start taking a look at it. But what it does is give you a foundation you can build your stories on and know that they will work. As to it being formulaic, approaching writing like this, just think of architecture: the foundations of a building might all look the same, while the buildings themselves look different and are designed for different purposes. Paying attention to genre is the foundation; fleshing out your characters and themes within the story is what makes each book unique.

Ok, so I went ahead an checked out this Story Grid of song and legend.

 

Based on the purpose of the myth itself, my story would actually be categorized as a love story. I was able to tick off most of the obligatory scenes from my previous outline.

 

Here's where it gets dicey.

 

It's not solely a romance. I'm just not sure how to label that undefined part yet (or I may be jamming too much into one story. Time will tell).

 

There are also parts of that clover I don't get-the inner part of the content leaf mainly.

 

 

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On 10/17/2020 at 12:13 PM, L. Wong said:

Personally, I enjoyed Wrinkle in Time and The Inquisitor’s Tale - children’s fantasy with Christian subplots.

Thanks for the article!

 

I wasn't a big fan of Wrinkle in Time, but I also didn't read it until I was an adult. It seems more geared to MG/YA in present terms.

 

I am not familiar with the Inquisitor's Tale. What's that about?

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51 minutes ago, RockyMtn Gal said:

There are also parts of that clover I don't get-the inner part of the content leaf mainly.

 

I actually think they do the "Inner" part of the content leaf wrong because they aren't Christians and so have very faulty models of what is going on during the inner conflict of real humans. But, they are just breaking up internal conflicts into particular named plot types and categories. For example, they consider a Redemption plot to be a plot that falls under the big category of "Morality." Redemption plots "turn" on the value of "Lost vs Saved." There are other specific plot types that fall under that "Morality" category that "turn" on different values like the Testing plot which turns on "Success vs Failure" or the Punitive plot on something like "Punishment vs Escape" where escape is the bad end of the spectrum.

 

They get very scientifical about it all.

 

If I was going to categorize what you've got written to this point that I've read for your inner plot, I'd say that it was an Education plot which should turn on "Naive vs Worldly" where Worldly isn't the bad connotation that it carries for Christians. If you tie her father and the world she left behind to her "Naive" side, you could make a really punchy ending where she falls in love with a Fae but loses her "Naive" side as she learns about what it means to live at a different rate of time compared to her family and friends. It sets up a great internal vs. external conflict for your heroine where she has to choose one part of the situation to lose in and one to win in. Very poignant ending that way. You know, if you don't ham handedly butcher the execution like I would.

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7 hours ago, RockyMtn Gal said:

There are also parts of that clover I don't get-the inner part of the content leaf mainly.

I think that these get explained a whole lot better in the book. To add to what @Thomas Davidsmeier has already explained, a story can have "two" plot lines - the "A" story (external conflict and genre) and the "B" story (internal conflict and genre). If you look carefully at a story, you'll spot both. I'm simplifying this a bit, but basically the "A" story or the external genre is what's happening, and the "B" story or the internal genre deals with how the character changes or what they learn as a result of the external conflict. 

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@Claire Tucker have you read Story or Dialogue by Robert McKee? He's one of the inspirations for the Story Grid guys, and I like a point that he makes in Dialogue that is kind of in opposition to that split that the Story Grid guys describe. McKee says that every decision and action (even if it is only a mental decision and words being verbalized inside the character's head) make a beat and that we need to be aware of our beats whether they are up or down and whether they are building properly within a scene. He seems to see it as a more wholistic approach, though he does talk about the subtextual action in a scene a lot, and I suppose you could argue that the A vs B thing could be the overt text vs the subtext. I've just recently read this and I'm interested to put it into practice, but what I do know is that it will make much richer, better textured writing if I think this way.

 

Part of McKee's motivation for this particular advice of treating even internal dialogue as action is that he's mostly a screenwriter where textual real estate is much more valuable and can't afford to be as wasteful as mere novelists can.

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