So Esquire published a list purporting to be the 50 best fantasy novels of all time. It’s a terrible list for that purpose, full of idiosyncratic selections. But it does the much more useful thing that you’d hope such a list would do—it contains interesting books. I’d read twenty-something of the fifty books already, and thought highly of nearly all of them; of the ones I hadn’t read, a bunch were already on my to-read list. This sufficed to give me enough trust in the list’s creator to decide to read through all the books on the list. Honestly, I always hate the period where I’m trying to decide what to read next, so I figured it could only be a good thing to have months of reading mapped out for me ahead of time.
So starting at the bottom of the list, and ignoring the books I’d already read (and one that isn’t available in ebook form), I started reading. Six books in, I had two contradicting opinions.
On the positive side: The “no choices needed” thing worked out wonderfully. Not only don’t I have any waffling around choosing a book, I don’t even know what all these books are, so there’s not even that “ugh, I’m not in the mood for this” hesitation before I go on to the next one. I just load ‘er up, start reading, and see where I’m going. It’s been great. As well, these books have been somewhat off-axis of what I’d normally read, and I always enjoy reading something different from the usual, so that’s been fun, too.
But on the negative side: I had read almost half of the list organically before starting in on working through it deliberately, right. And I hadn’t quite reckoned with what that would mean, which is: All the books that are closely aligned with my “usual” taste, all the ones that I was like “ooh, the author of this list and I agree on all these books!” are ones that I’ve already read and thus am not re-reading here. So while reading through this list as a blank slate would let me mix in some fun adventure-y sorts of books with things that are grimmer, sadder, or more literary, I’ve already pre-selected the fun books out. It’s like eating a can of mixed nuts where I’ve already eaten all the cashews and pecans: Almonds and hazelnuts are fine, but I don’t want a can of just almonds and hazelnuts. Seven books into the list, I kind of hit a wall and just couldn’t continue.
There are still books coming up that I’m interested in, but I’m not quite sure if I’m going to keep going through the list or not. Maybe I just need a break from it, or maybe I’m gonna call this an experiment ended here. I guess I’ll see what I feel like later. But in the meantime, I’ve got 6.1 books to talk about.
#49 on the list is Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. This is one that I’ve actually had on my to-read pile for years and years now, never quite rising to the top, but hey, here we are now. It reminds me a lot of The Prestige (the movie, at least; I’ve never read the book) in that it’s about a kind of sociopathic magical duel that takes over people’s lives. But the way that duel plays out, and the titular circus, are cool and stylish. The book has a wonderful atmosphere and great characters. Recommended.
#48 is Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, another one that was already on my to-read list. This one, I was somewhat less positive about. It starts out with elderly characters who are living in a kind of semi-amnesiac state, in this foggy and indistinct setting. As the book goes along, it eventually becomes clear that they’re in a post-Arthurian Britain, and that their memory issues are a broader problem. The book is extremely “literary” in that kind of Mythopoeic/World Fantasy Award way (and it was in fact nominated for both of those), and so the characters have some symbolically charged encounters that are not grounded in any kind of psychological realism en route to an extremely symbolic climax. It’s not bad, and I can see the attraction, but personally I would have liked this a lot better as a short story with some of the episodes cut out. Not really recommended, unless you’re looking for a misty, forgetful kind of book.
#47 is Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char. I had never even heard of this one, so had no idea what to expect at all. So I’m happy that it ended up being maybe the highlight of the list for me so far. The book starts out in a way that’s hard to grasp—there’s a huge focus on minor side characters having little story vignettes. Each of them is very good, distinctive and often fun, but it’s hard to see how they relate to each other in a larger way. But at some point in the book, it does become clear, and coheres into a kind of secret history deep fantasy. It’s got big ideas while also being character-driven, and it manages to tell a fairly dark story while keeping a sense of humor. Excellent stuff, highly recommended.
#43 is Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World. This turns out to be a collection of short stories, but what’s embarrassing is that I didn’t realize it at first. You know how I was just saying that The Library at Mount Char starts out telling disconnected vignettes about different characters? Well, I thought that’s what was happening here, too. As I read the first two stories, I was like, “these chapters are great, the backstory setup for these characters could almost be whole stories all on their own,” and I was really curious to see how they’d tie together later. And then I started the third story, which was even more obviously unrelated, and started to get suspicious. Oops. So yeah, as you can imagine from my reaction, these are the kind of literary short stories that are heavy on character and atmosphere, but light on plot—they weren’t just “almost” full-on stories as I imagined, they were full-on stories and unbeknownst to me, I’d already gotten to the end of the plot when I’d finished them. Still, the character and atmosphere are well done. Lightly recommended if that’s what you’re in the mood for.
#41 is Ben Loory’s Tales of Falling and Flying. This is another short story collection, but this one is super-obviously so. The stories are hyper-minimalist things that are almost fables in their level of abstraction. Each of them individually is very good; they’re ambiguous enough that you could spend a lot of time teasing out the underlying themes or metaphors or whatever in that fable-y kind of way, like how the mouse and the lion isn’t really just about that relationship between two animals, but is making larger points. But this is a case where cramming a pile of these short fable-like stories together into a single volume isn’t how they’re best experienced. If you were reading a normal short story collection, and there were one of these stories mixed in with a bunch of more straightforward ones, it would be great, a standout that would stick around in your thoughts. But reading all of them back to back, eventually your interpretive brain gets exhausted, and you (or at least: I) just start letting them wash over you without really trying to go deep on them. I think what I want to say about this book is that I’d recommend it, but that you should read like one story and then go read a different book, come back for the next story, read another book, etc. Reading them all together like I did is about the worst way to experience the stories.
#40 is Julia Fine’s What Should be Wild. So this is another one that has that Mythopoeic/World Fantasy Award feeling to it, but wasn’t nominated for either of those. (It did get a Bram Stoker Award nomination, and I guess I can see the horror elements now that I think about it.) On the mythic side, you’ve got a mythic forest that has some shit going on, you’ve got a girl whose touch has the power of life and death, and some creepy family dynamics. But then there is a more straightforward fantasy plot here, too, with more physical dangers and mysteries and so forth. Ultimately, this one fell into the liked-but-didn’t-love bucket for me. Lightly recommended, I suppose.
#38 is Brian Catling’s The Vorrh, and you’ll notice I’m not boldfacing that or listing it officially in this entry, because I started in on it, and it’s this super-literary thing that’s jumping around between like three different characters in an ambiguous but mythic setting, and I was just not in the mood at all. So this is where I noped out of the list for the moment. But my negative impression here may not actually be fair at all, and if/when I do come back to this list, I intend to give this a second chance.