“I hate musicals,” I told him.
We were chopping veggies for a roast, the husband and I. He gave me a sidelong look that said I was probably too dumb to be wielding a kitchen knife.
“What?” I said. “I do.”
“Fine, name some of your favorite movies.”
“Ok,” I said. I have a lot of favorite movies. “Pulp Fiction. Moonrise Kingdom. The Professional.”
“Yes,” he said. “And Rocky Horror Picture Show. Grease. Chicago. Moulin Rouge. Rent.”
“Oh,” I said. (Long, dramatic pause.) “I love musicals.”
“I know you do, dear.”
Know what I hate besides musicals? Fantasy fiction.
Swords and dragons and magic? Get real. The princess doesn’t get rescued by the wealthy prince. She gets knocked up and left with the dragon. And then, somehow, that turns into a student debt bubble that follows her post-baby fat ass to the old folks home.
I want realism! I want gritty, in-your-face, this-is-how-the-world-turns depth.
Ok, I can already hear him…
“Mandy, name some of your favorite novels.”
Fine, Nathan. I will.
Here we go.
#1 Lives of the Mayfair Witches
Don’t get me wrong. I loved The Vampire Chronicles as much as the next vampire-wannabe, but Lives of the Mayfair Witches changed my life.
That’s a stupid thing to say about a fantasy series, I guess. Except that it’s true.
If you read this epic chronicle in high school, like I did, you’ll know that a gender-barrier-crushing, sexuality-exploring, existence-pondering saga can make you question everything you thought you knew.
From sex and sexuality, to the meaning of “feminine,” and how much I could expect from life as an intelligent, independent woman—these books changed my perspective for the better.
Plus, there’s great sex and historical detail. Can you ask for more?
Don’t think Lives of the Mayfair Witches is fantasy? Maybe I’m not the only one with a fantasy fiction prejudice. Magic and the supernatural? Check and check.
The great sex, gender norm shattering, and incredibly complex characters are just a bonus.
#2 The Chronicles of Narnia
My first response to The Chronicles of Narnia? “Best damn stories ever.” (Yes, I talked like that when I was nine. Just not out loud.)
And I’m still almost too ashamed to admit that the story’s parallels with Christianity seemed like God reaching out to affirm the religion. But I also thought grandma knew God’s phone number back then, so that tells you a little something about my connection with reality.
Maybe that’s why I’m so anal about realism in fiction now. Hmm.
#3 The Song of Ice and Fire
Who doesn’t love this series? Raunchy sex (I’m beginning to detect a theme, here). Powerful families in world-shattering conflict. Political maneuvering and courage under crisis.
Does George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series even count as fantasy? I mean, it’s just too easy to suspend the disbelief. These characters respond to magic so realistically, I never think to doubt its existence.
Ice zombies? Dragons? Fortune-telling and shadow killers? It could totally happen. I’ve seen it in George RR Martin.
#4 The Kingkiller Chronicle
I walked past this book and its author three times. Three times. The author sat there signing free copies. And I still turned up my nose.
This was at the 2008 American Library Association conference in Anaheim, where Rothfuss was accepting an Alex Award.
My only excuse for almost missing out on one of my favorite books of all time is that I was convinced I hated fantasy fiction.
But my husband loves fantasy fiction, and he knows it. So—even though I was exhausted from how-to panels and interactive workshops and keynote speakers—I finally picked up the book.
I only wish I could have known then how much I’d love The Name of the Wind because I would have fangirled all over Patrick Rothfuss that day.
Lucky for him, I can’t tell the future.
At home, The Name of the Wind went into a box of unread books (no fancy bookshelves back then), and we both forgot about it.
Fast forward six months. The husband and I are packing for our study abroad trip, and we need reading material for the flight. We have yet to learn that whole “pack light” concept, so we throw in a bunch of books. The Name of the Wind was one of them.
So there I am a month later, crying in the shower of this podunk German town called Horb, because I hate German food and I hate our mean home stay family mother who yelled at me in German for not studying enough, and I’m pretty sure at that point that I could never love anything that has to do with anything German (Of course I fell in love with Germany later. Much, much later.). So, in an effort to make me just a little bit happy again during my culture-shock/existential crisis, Nathan reads me The Name of the Wind.
And I stop crying so I can hear it.
Epic. Can I just say? Poetic prose. Razor-sharp control over the English language. It’s more than fantasy. It’s surprising and compelling and moving. An instant favorite.
I reread The Name of the Wind every year and pine like an unpopped bride on the edge of the sea, waiting for Kvothe’s next appearance.
The Lord of the Rings
Okay, let me be clear. I still hate this series.
I know, I know. Who could hate The Lord of the Rings, right?
Let me tell you a little story.
So I was in fourth grade GATE class. This matters because in GATE classes, you get a lot more freedom to do your own thing. Well, not a lot more. But enough that, if you’re reading a book under the table when you’re supposed to be watching President Clinton’s inaugural address, you probably won’t get yelled at. As long as you don’t make a scene.
The book under the table? Definitely not The Lord of the Rings. It was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
So there I am, on an adventure, minding my own business, when the boy sitting across from me barks out a laugh. Every head in the class swivels to look at us. Well, they look at him, but I’m worried they’ll tattle on me too.
President Clinton goes on about whatever presidents go on about. Talking out of a boxy tv set strapped to a rollaway cart. If you’re a 90’s kid, you know what I’m talking about.
I shove my book under the table a little further and squint at Clinton’s face like it’s the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen. As though to say don’t mind me, I’m just doing the assignment.
“Is everyone taking notes?” Mrs. Williams chimed from behind a stack of papers. So, of course, everyone pretends to scribble notes and forgets about the two kids who aren’t paying attention.
I sneak a look, and the boy’s staring at his crotch and grinning. I know his dirty little secret, because I’m doing it too. Reading a book in my lap under the table.
I lean over when the coast is clear.
“What are you reading?”
He looks at me sideways. I know that look. It’s the why-are-you-bothering-me-when-I-have-a-book-in-my-hand look. But that just makes me more determined.
“Psssst! What are you—”
He sighs and shows me the cover under the table. The Hobbit. Some old fashioned thing with a dragon in a cave. The kind of thing a boy would like. But I guess I could try it.
“Nice.” I say. He rolls his eyes. But then he looks at me funny.
“What are you reading?”
I’m sure my eyes went wide. I thought I was so sly back then, and he’d seen right through me. But I show him the cover anyway.
“That book’s stupid,” he said, and went back to reading.
Ha! If he had taste that bad, his book must be awful.
I didn’t like the boy, so I didn’t like his book. And I didn’t try The Hobbit again until my husband insisted on it, ten years later.
The husband: “I grew up on this. It’s excellent.” He rereads The Lord of the Rings series every few years. So I tried The Hobbit with a newfound respect, and…
I still hated it.
With some stories, if you miss out reading them as a kid, you simply miss out. Their lasting power has a lot to do with nostalgia. And with The Hobbit, I just don’t have any.
So now, every time the husband rereads them, I get a little pouty because I’ll never feel for those books what he feels.
I hate being left out.
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Did your fantasy favorite make the list?
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I love fantasy fiction and I know it! I love the Inkheart series.
I would have left out “Narnia”, and the Song of Ice and Fire”, although I enjoyed both, but instead I would absolutely include the Potter series, and the most recent of L. E. Modesitt JR’s fantasy series, “The Imager”, (Really all of his fantasy series would make my top 10), Also, Robert Jordan with “TheWheel of Time” really has to be included in any such list, in my opinion…..such wonderful stories.
Mandy Wallace says
Thanks for weighing in, Rick. I’ll have to look into The Wheel of Time and The Imager series. Agree with you about Harry Potter.
Anna Stewart says
Oh wow. How to respond to a person who doesn’t like fantasy fiction! I LIVED on fantasy fiction growing up! I still like it a little bit more than is healthy…although my tastes have expanded. That said, I’ll forgive you…because obviously you sort of like it after all! Whew! Thought I’d have to denounce you as a false bibliophile or something!.
Okay, here we go:
First, do not judge The Lord of the Rings by The Hobbit! The Hobbit, while somewhat entertaining, is geared toward children and doesn’t hold a candle to the subsequent trilogy. And I’ll admit…Tolkien’s writing style is not my favorite …although the story itself, the relationships, the world…is wonderful!
Second, we are agreed that Chronicles of Narnia is awesome. Especially The Horse and His Boy, my personal favorite of the lot. I’m a little afraid to read that series now for fear I will not love it as much as I did as a child. The boy who told you it was stupid…was stupid! (There’s my childish taunt for the day).
Third, how does a list that includes The Chronicles of Narnia fail to include The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander? If there was a series that dared to climb above Narnian adventure in this fantasy-reader’s heart, it is that series. Fflewddur Fflam and his harp? Taran Wanderer? Princess Eilonwy? Yes, I realize I’m likely spouting what appear to be nonsense names to someone who has likely never experienced the wonder of the series…but I’m half convinced that the strangeness of character names is half the charm of a good fantasy. Lol!
I will admit I disagree on the Potter series as ranking in the upper echelon as others of your readers have said it should (do not tell my nieces I said so) as I found the ones I read entertaining but unremarkable. And I have not read either number 1 or 4 on your list. I may have to check them out.
I enjoyed your post…even if I was a little horrified by certain omissions…and your thankfully false statement that you hate my favorite genre! 😉
Mandy Wallace says
Looks like I found one of your hot buttons, Anna 😀 With all this passion you have for The Prydain Chronicles, I’ll have to put it a little higher on my reading list.
I’ll put some more thought into the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Maybe jump into it with a huge cup of tea to temper my prejudgment grumbling.
And let me know if you try the Lives of the Mayfair Witches or Kingkiller Chronicles. I’d love to know what you think.
To fantasy fiction! 🙂
Donnee Patrese says
I love all vampire series. My favorite is Anita Black series by Laurel K Hamilton.
Joan Lindsay Kerr says
I’m with you on the Hobbit and the Ring trilogy. I tried to slog my way through them several times and I never yet succeeded. It sort of made me feel that there was something wrong with me when everyone else raved so much. I actually do not read much fantasy fiction anymore, although I loved the OZ books when I was a girl, and I do love the magical world created by J. K. Rowling. Have you read the Outlander series, by Diana Gabaldon? They can’t be categorized as fantasy, although there is definitely that element in them.
I love fantasy fiction! I own the Narnia series, of course, yet I just read The Magicians Nephew and the Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and found them wanting. Tried reading Harry Potter and couldn’t force myself to read it though I admire J.K. Rowling. A couple of those other series I am going to check out. An older one is The Compleat Enchanter.
I’ve heard readers say that about The Magician’s Nephew before. But as it’s part of a series, it’s tough for me to judge it on its own.
I think reading the Narnia series as an adult will change how you feel about them too since they are written for children. You just won’t connect with them the way you would have as a kid.
I haven’t finished the Kingkiller Chronicles yet, but I do agree with you that The Name of the Wind is an outstanding book. I love everything else on your list except for the Song of Fire and Ice books, I read and read them until I couldn’t read anymore. Guess I got burnt out on them. Still good reads though.
I gave The LOTR series a try but I couldn’t get into it so i gave up, I have been told that The Chronicles of Narnia are some good books so i will defiantly be reading them soon. I love Fantasy-adventure books and The Percy Jackson and the Olympians are really good books, they are my favorite you wouldn’t think so because of the whole Greek/Roman mythology is put in the present but i would totally recommend them.
I love His Dark Materials (Philip Pullman) but please don’t watch the film!
Also, I love the Carpathian Novels (Christine Feehan), not just for the sex scenes before you ask!
I grew up on Narnia so that’s an obvious addition to the list.
Finally, if you haven’t read The End of Mr Y (Scarlet Thomas) you’re definitely missing out.
Thanks for sharing these, Naomi!
Carlota Álvarez says
Well, I disagree about The Lord of the Rings, but you need to read more fantasy fiction series. I recommend you “The Sword of Truth” and “The Wheel of time”
Mandy Wallace says
Thanks for the book recommendations, Carlota (love your name, by the way).
I LUV fantasy books if it weren’t for them I would be dying every second on each day!!!! Really really need to add Harry Potter! As I know you are a grown adult but you need to try the Percy Jackson series they were my favorite yet!!!!! I know this one isn’t exactly fantasy but…. Try the divergent series plz it’s awesome!!!! All about luv and war and a complete different time! It takes palace in Chicago!!!!!!
Great recommendations. Thanks!
Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Never thought I would like anything like it.
janet kolle says
I know this is an oldish mail thread but just came across it. Thanks for the blog and comments, some new authors to check out! My absolute favourite has to be the Farseer Series by Robin Hobb – loved every book and even my non reading husband was on my heels to read faster so he could have the next book. Can definitely recommend – and the final book was published last year so the series is complete.