Friday, March 7, 2014

In Defense of (Bad) Fantasy - Part One

The only thing more polarizing than asking a bunch of fans to name the 'best' of their chosen fandom is asking those same fans to name the 'worst' instead. The love of a 'best' book will either spawn a whole lot of emotional gushing, or a painstakingly constructed argument in its defense. Either way, it's generally a positive experience, and one that can do a great deal to draw new fans to those books. I'll admit, there was a time, early on in my exploration of the fantasy genre, that I lived and died by those 'best of' lists. At some point, however, the appeal wore off as I began to tire of just reading more of the same.

When it comes to the hatred of a 'worst' book, the reaction isn't really that much different. You either get a whole lot of venomous spite, or a painstakingly constructed critical dismissal. Of course, being a rebellious sort of reader, I find myself dabbling in those 'worst of' lists on a semi-regular basis. Sometimes it's just a matter of wanting to read something completely different; other times it's just a contrary desire to prove people wrong; and sometimes it's a matter of finding some sort of dark appeal in whatever element it was that sparked their hatred.

Anyway, with that said, I wanted to look at the issue from two different sides.

To start with, I scoured a number of 'worst of' lists around the net (Best Fantasy Books has a great list, as does Goodreads here and here) and restricted myself to the 'worst' 20 titles on each list. These are books variously described as insipid, 2-dimensional, utterly predictable, uninspiring, terribly written, bland, and unrealistic. While there are a few I've never read and never plan to read (Twilight, I'm looking at you), and a few I agree with wholeheartedly (sorry, Narnia lovers), I was surprised by how many 'worst' reads I enjoyed.

  • The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb seems to get a lot of universal hatred, no matter what list you're looking at, but I don't get it. It's not the greatest fantasy epic I've ever read, not by any means, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first book - enough so that I picked up books 2 and 3, even if I haven't read them yet. Interesting world building, a creative system of magic, some nicely flawed heroes, and a dangerous sort of sexuality that, I will admit, has a Mord'Sith sort of flavor to it.
  • Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind is a series where I'll agree to meet the haters halfway. The first book absolutely blew me away when I read it, and I couldn't snatch up the second fast enough. As for the rest of the series . . . well, the third book was okay, but after that the series got progressively worse. It felt as if Goodkind lost interest in framing his political philosophy with an actual story, and then fell into the trap of writing more, not because the story needed it, but because it continued to sell.
  • Dragonlance & Forgotten Realms get dumped on a lot, but you have to take them in context. They're a sort of genre gateway drug, a bridge between role-playing and reading, and are responsible for bringing a lot of people to the genre - authors and readers both. Yes, it's been 20 years, and I honestly don't care to find out whether Raistlin and Drizzt stand up to an adult reread, but I have extremely fond memories of what Weis, Hickman, and Salvatore crafted back in the TSR days.
  • Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks is another series where I'll agree to meet the haters somewhere in the middle. The first trilogy is a classic for all the right reasons, and as much as it owes to Tolkien, I'd argue it's a far more accessible read. Yes, the series did get ridiculously repetitive, and it seemed as if Brooks retold the exact same story several times with different characters, but moving on to explore the origins of Shannara seems to have rekindled something. The last few books have been markedly different, not to mention better, and I'm back on the fan side of the fence again.
  • Gor by John Norman is a series that's almost too easy to hate. What I find odd, though, is that it likely wouldn't be subject to a fraction of that hatred if it were marketed as erotica instead of fantasy - what's taboo and sexist for one genre is perfectly acceptable for another. Skim the bondage fantasies (if they're an issue), and skip the novels outside the Tarl Cabot storyline, and there's a lot of old-school, pulp sci-fi, sword-and-sorcery adventure to be enjoyed. Think Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, but sexed up.
  • The Wayfarer Redemption by Sara Douglass is a series that I admittedly don't remember well enough to really say much about, except to say that I enjoyed it enough to read all 6 books. From what I do remember, it had an interesting story, some edgy characters, and a really solid mythology behind it all. It may very well be cheesy and clumsy, as the critics complain, but it couldn't have been that horrible if I persevered through a half dozen books.
  • Lord of the Isles by David Drake is one of those series I've enjoyed for precisely the same reasons so many people seem to hate it. It's a traditional fantasy that really takes no chances, and does nothing particularly original with the material, but which is a fun diversion. It borders on camp at times, and is formulaic in structure, but the writing flows well and the characters are immensely likable. I pick up a new book every once in a while when I want a popcorn fantasy read to enjoy, and it's like revisiting old friends.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson is admittedly a difficult read, with a main character who is a total ass, and I get that a lot of readers can't get past the rape scene, but it all comes down to context. You have an angry, bitter man, dying of leprosy, necessarily cut off from all physical contact. He believes the fantasy world in which he finds himself is all a dream, with no real-world consequences to his actions, so he lashes out and indulges his frustrations. It's his personal growth and ultimate understanding of those consequences that makes the series so compelling, along with the lingering, carefully juggled question as to whether or not the richly imagined fantasy world is a dream or reality. Dark and difficult, yes, but brilliant as well.
  • The Sum of All Men by David Farland is a series that I felt started off strong, so I have a hard time hating it, but which did exhaust any appeal for me after a few books. The writing was decent, the characters strong, and the novelty of the magic system was exciting at first, but it began to feel like a late night role playing session that stupidly refused to end. It's hard to maintain any semblance of dramatic tension when characters just keep endowing themselves with more powers in a never-ending game of one-upmanship. That being said, the first 2 books are worth a read.
  • The Belgariad by David Eddings is another series I don't remember well enough to defend, but which I enjoyed enough to read all 5 books. It was nothing special or remarkable, and didn't leave any sort of lasting impression on me, but it fed my fantasy habit well enough back in high school. I think I may have actually started on The Malloreon but, if I did, I don't remember anything about it. Take that for what it's worth.
  • Wit'ch Fire by James Clemens gets almost as much universal hatred as Robert Newcomb's saga, but I don't get it either. It was a largely generic fantasy novel, formulaic and predictable, but sometimes that's exactly what you're looking for - a comfortable read that entertains, but which doesn't challenge. The characters could have been imbued with a little more personality, but it's brisk pacing stands out in my memory as something unique. As for the apostrophe issue, unless you're reading the story aloud, I don't see them as an issue.

That, for what it's worth, is my take on defending the 'worst' of the genre. Come back next week and we'll take a look at some of those titles I bought out of spite, just to prove the haters wrong . . . and which I thoroughly enjoyed.

In the meantime, share your thoughts on 'best' and 'worst' below.

15 comments:

  1. Brooks did become repetitive, which is why I've only read a few of his Shannara books beyond the trilogy. People might hate the trilogy because it was simpler and similar to LOTR, but it a far more enjoyable read.

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    1. Blasphemy, Alex! Just kidding - I agree that Brooks presented a more accessible, enjoyable sort of LOTR. As much as I love Tolkien's masterpiece, it was extraordinarily dry in places and it took some perseverance to keep with it at times.

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  2. Goodkind is the only one on your list that I actually read. And I would still call the first book OK, even pretty decent. But after that.... (To think I read the entire first arc. It wasn't untill I went to reread it after so much more fantasy was under my belt that I wondered how I did that).

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    1. Agreed. The first book was something new, something different in epic fantasy, and it had something of a taboo appeal for me as a teenager. I stuck with him for longer than I probably should have, and while he recaptured some of the narrative later on, he also feel into the trap of repeating himself and retelling the same story.

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  3. Terry Pratchett is someone I never really understood or liked.
    And that Martin guy who wrote GAME OF THRONES. That amount of torture porn and ebil just ain't healthy... I tell you!

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    1. I like Terry Pratchett in small doses, especially his early stuff, but I thought his collaboration with Stephen Baxter was just atrocious.

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  4. I haven't read any of them. But wow, that's not a place a writer wants to be...on the worst list! But much is to be learned from those lists- we can figure out what was so annoying.

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  5. I LOVED the Belgariad when I was a kid. Went back to it a few months ago out of curiosity and couldn't make it through the first book. Nonetheless, even though I can't remember the plot of the series beyond the basics, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for it.

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    1. It's always tough to revisit old favorites, simply because we're not the same person we were the first time we enjoyed them. That's part of the reason I don't tend to re-read - I'd rather not risk tarnishing those memories.

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  6. Wait, wait, wait! Forgotten Realms was trashed? No way! I love the Drizzt series. I've read the first three books four times. Then again, you're right, that's definitely a niche kind of theme.

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    1. Drizzt is rather iconic when it comes to fantasy, isn't he? I was a big fan of the Dark Elf Saga and Icewind Dale, but it turned me off when Salvatore started bringing people back to life and rewriting his own stories.

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  7. Great list and discussion!

    The Belgariad/Mallorean by Eddings and Dragonlance books by Hickman/Weis are a few of my teenage favorites, so I cherish the memories of them and resist anyone characterizing them as "bad" fantasy. However, I do understand their flaws, having been unsuccessful in rereads I've attempted in the last decade. Even with that being said, I still do not think the series are "bad."

    As for Thomas Covenant by Donaldson, I reread the whole series a few years ago after a couple decades and was surprised how much I enjoyed them. While the first trilogy was very Tolkienesque, Covenenat's transformation from ass to enlightened ass was an enjoyable trip. Plus a lot of the secondary characters were even better than I remembered. The second trilogy was not as interesting to me, and the third (The books that I have read) were not that compelling. However, to me, this still a very good fantasy series.

    Shannara by Brooks was always one of those "okay" fantasy series even when I was a teenager. It was enjoyable but nothing really awe inspiring. I have not tried the books written in the last decade, so I can't speak to them.

    Wayfarer Redemption was one of those series that I read but never let any of my friends know that I actually enjoyed. It was like a fantasy harlequin novel to me: fantasy plus corny romance. Campy almost. But I recall that it was entertaining.

    The other series you mentioned, I have never tried. And the fact that I have never tried them might say a lot about my initial impression of them.

    Since this is a list, I'll nominate a couple fantasy series I never "liked."

    The first is "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" by Tad Williams, which I thought I would love when it first came out. I read all three books and quite honestly did not enjoy a single one.

    The second is Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Cycle books. I loved the initial series, tried the next couple series but finally just threw my hands up and walked away from it. Talk about telling the same story over and over.

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    1. "Covenenat's transformation from ass to enlightened ass" - couldn't have said it better myself! You're right, there were some exceptionally strong supporting characters in both trilogies (I haven't caught up with the Final Chronicles yet). Saltheart Foamfollower is one who always sticks with me.

      I can't argue with you on the Riftwar Cycle books, but I will say the final trilogy recaptured some of the magic and was worth reading. Having said that, I don't feel like I missed anything at all with the 10 books I skipped over to get there. :)

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  8. I was always a big fan of the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books as well. I've enjoyed rereading them, too.

    I read the Belgariad for the first time when I was, oh, about 27 or so. Just seemed a little childish, but I bet if I was 14 it would have rocked!

    Good post, keep it up!

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  9. I think the Forgotten Realms books were great fun, although hardly great literature. However, "The Belgariad" just drives me insane, it's so bad. It's...terrible. Just terrible. If I were teaching a writing class, that book would be my go-to example for "don't ever do this." Ye gods, but that's bad.

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