Before getting into horror fiction in about 1982, I pretty much read nothing but fantasy. I loved a good fantasy series, and would read them over and over during junior high and early high school. While poking around on Goodreads.com recently I came across an author name I hadn’t thought of in a while and it reminded me of just how much I enjoyed a trilogy of her books. So, I thought I’d list my top five fantasy series here, then ask you to discuss them, and add your own. Mine are in no particular order. Oh, and I didn’t include J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings because, like most people of my generation, it being the best ever just goes without saying.
Riddle-Master by Patricia A. McKillip – This is the series that inspired this blog. I have the three books in tattered old paperbacks that my parents had to special order back in the days when Enid didn’t have a book store. In 1999 the three volumes were collected into one book, seen here. It’s the story of a young prince with three star-like marks on his forehead. He travels from his island of Hed in search of adventure. You can see the Tolkien influence here, particularly with the emphasis on riddles (as in Bilbo vs. Gollum), but this series is easier to read. Also, the second book shifts the focus to the female heroine, something that was pretty unusual for it’s time. Even as a boy reading this series, I had no problem with the switch to a female perspective because the story was still just as interesting. This was a real comfort read for me as an early teenager and I would love to pick it up and read it again right now. If there was but world enough and time …
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander – As I recall, this was my first exposure to fantasy literature. Before this I read mostly dog and horse stories, but I was lucky enough to be put in an advanced reading class in seventh grade. We met in the library and were guided through our readings by the librarian and this was one of the first books she had us read. (Some of my all-time favorite reads date back to that class.) The first book, The Book of Three, is the only one we read in class; I read the rest on my own as fast as I could get them. This is where I learned about story arc, as Taran, the assistant pig keeper, longs for adventure, then is thrust into it. He meets a cast of unforgettable companions and has many adventures before … Well, I won’t give it away. This was also my first introduction to Celtic mythology. This series is aimed at a younger audience, but I love it still and remember fondly every turn and twist of the five-book story.
Earthsea Cycle by Ursula K. Le Guin – Looking at Goodreads now, I see that Le Guin is still writing this Cycle. However, I only care about the first three books. That’s all there was for years, and when the fourth book came out in the mid-1990s I eagerly grabbed it up, and soon wished I hadn’t. So, my discussion here is only going to include The Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. This one is significant to me because it taught me that magic has to have a price. Also, like McKillip’s series, the second book shifts to a female point of view, and in this case it is that second book that is my favorite. In fact, The Tombs of Atuan might even be included in my all-time list of favorite books, and I can’t quite say why. Usually I don’t go for female-oriented books, books set in the desert, books that have an Egyptian feel to them … but this one has all of that and I love it.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis – This one is such a no-brainer that I almost didn’t include it here. I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in the same class where we read The Book of Three and was hooked on the series. I think this series is a little more uneven than Alexander’s, and I really don’t care for The Last Battle much at all, but there is so much good stuff throughout that this one is a must-read. My favorite of the series is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, with The Magician’s Nephew a close second. It was with Lion that I first learned a story could be about more than what was simply on the page. I like the movies being made from this series, but really, you have to read these to fully appreciate them. Reading about Lewis’s conversion to Christianity and his relationship to Tolkien also deepens the experience of reading this series.
Conan by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague De Camp, and Lin Carter – Filling in this fifth spot was a tough choice. Choosing to go with this version of the Conan cycle will be seen as controversial to many fans, too, so let me just say I went with nostalgia and importance in my literary development. For those not in the know, Conan the Barbarian is the creation of Robert E. Howard, a sad man who wrote pretty much invented the sword-and-sorcery genre before blowing his brains out when he was 30 years old. He wrote several Conan stories, and left many more stories and fragments behind, but there was much in the way of a chronological order. De Camp and Carter took most of what was available, sorted it, wrote new material to fill in the gaps, and came up with a 12-volume series that is out of print now. I was introduced to Conan through the first film, but the series became a bridge for me to move from fantasy into horror, as I went from Howard to Lovecraft without even knowing at the time that they men had been great friends. Darker and sexier than anything listed above, this was a series I enjoyed as a pubescent teenager and still appreciate today.
Honorable Mentions (because I just love them too much not to)
- Dragonlance: Chronicles by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
- Dragonlance: Legends by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
- Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks
- The Iron Tower Trilogy by Dennis L. McKiernan
- The First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson