If you want to be a great writer, you must likewise be a great reader. These novels and short stories are classics of the fantasy genre which are definitely worth reading, and will enrich your prose, which we know you’re thinking about because you’re participating in our Inkshares contest!
“The Tower of the Elephant” by Robert E. Howard
Everybody knows Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan. Blubbering as though born with a speech impediment and a learning disability, but stacked like six feet of beef, the Conan of popular culture believes that what is best in life is “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.” That quote comes supposedly from Genghis Khan, and not from the work of Robert E. Howard, which goes far in explaining why the fantasy aficionado should go through the trouble of checking out Howard’s original work.
Howard wrote in punches, jabs, and blows. As he was being paid by the word, not every story is as good as it could be, but when at his best, Howard wrote like a boxer in the ring. A sample of Howard’s writing at its most technicolor and lurid can be seen in the first paragraph of “Tower of the Elephant.”
Torches flared murkily on the revels in the Maul, where the thieves of the east held carnival by night. In the Maul they could carouse and roar as they liked, for honest people shunned the quarters, and watchmen, well paid with stained coins, did not interfere with their sport. Along the crooked, unpaved streets with their heaps of refuse and sloppy puddles, drunken roisterers staggered, roaring. Steel glinted in the shadows where wolf preyed on wolf, and from the darkness rose the shrill laughter of women, and the sounds of scufflings and strugglings. Torchlight licked luridly from broken windows and wide-thrown doors, and out of those doors, stale smells of wine and rank sweaty bodies, clamor of drinking-jacks and fists hammered on rough tables, snatches of obscene songs, rushed like a blow in the face.
If unfamiliar with Howard’s uneven oeuvre, “Tower of the Elephant” provides a place to start with Conan. In the tale, Conan attempts to rob a wizard of a treasure. There is no morality, no battle between good and evil in the tale, only simple greed and strength. If Howard’s misogyny and racism make his prose too troubling, consider Kurk Busiek’s run on Dark Horse’s Conan comic which keeps Conan a thief and a dastard, but strips him of his prejudice.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
Ursula K. LeGuin is a living legend of fantasy and science fiction, but as none of her works have been well translated into film or television, she is not as well known as she deserves. Whereas many of the novels on this list are worth reading despite the quality of the writing, LeGuin is a wordsmith who never puts two words together without making sure they fit.
Start LeGuin with A Wizard of Earthsea. The novel concerns young Ged, a shepherd on the isle of Gont, who discovers his magical abilities when pirates attack his village, and he uses fog to hide the settlement. He then goes to wizard school, where on a bet he summons a demon which he spends the rest of the novel attempting to exorcise.
If you like Earthsea, continue with its sequel, The Tombs of Atuan, which is the story of a girl sent to be a priestess at a temple dedicated to dark gods.
The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
The Worm Ouroboros is a fantasy grandfather that you almost certainly haven’t read, but authors you love thought highly of Eddison and his work. J.R.R. Tolkien loved the book, and C.S. Lewis praised it highly, saying that, “No writer can be said to remind us of Eddison.”
The reason no one reminds Lewis of Eddison is because Eddison wrote in a sort of Renaissance-cant of centuries-old style and forms.
Consider these lines from the second chapter of the novel:
“My hippogriff travelleth as well in time as in space. Days and weeks have been left behind by us, in what seemeth to thee but the twinkling of an eye, and thou standest in the Foliot Isles, a land happy under the mild regiment of a peaceful prince, on the day appointed by King Gorice to wrastle with Lord Goldry Bluszco. Terrible must be the wrastling betwixt two such champions, and dark the issue thereof.”
The “wrastling” spoken of will be between the kings of Demonland and Witchland, and will decide which kingdom will rule the other.
It is easy to look at a 16th-century style written in the early 20th century, and names like Witchland and think that The Worm Ouroboros is weak and pitiful stuff. But mistakes made by a father often save their children from making the same error, and it’s worth noting that J.R.R. Tolkien considered The Worm Ouroboros a fine novel. It’s easy to see what he took from it. Even though The Worm Ouroboros takes place on Mercury, it’s inhabitants call it “middle earth.”
The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny
The Chronicles of Amber is a ten volume fantasy series about Corwin and his son Merlin. The series starts with Corwin comatose in New York. When he comes to, he learns that he is part of a family of immortals who rule over the one true reality upon which all others are based: Amber.
Family fighting soon begins over control of Amber and goes on for five novels. The last five novels concern Corwin’s son Merlin, and are considered lesser works. Merlin is a hacker who starts the first of his novels studying computer science on Earth, which is a bit of a mundane start for things.
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Feature image by Cary Nord, courtesy Dark Horse Publishing.
Other images courtesy Parnassus Press.