Saturday, 14 January 2017

My Modern Fantasy Challenge

This post would be a lot easier to introduce if I'd written when I'd actually had the idea.

Back in May last year, I decided that I don't know enough about modern fantasy. My tastes had calcified. I had a rough idea who was big and I'd read a few of them but, by and large, I was completely out of date. I didn't like this because:

a) As an aspiring author, I needed to know what was doing on out there
b) As a complete fantasy nerd, I hated the idea that I missing out on the good shit

My solution was to take myself off to a number of forums I'd recently joined back then - Best Fantasy Books, Fantasy Faction, and SFF Chronicles - and ask for recommendations on the best fantasy published within the last ten years. No preferences of any sort were given, although in some cases people knew me well enough to guess themselves. In the case of series, that meant those begun in that time span, not extending into it, although I wasn't being strict on time frame. My intention was to narrow down the feedback into a list of nine books by nine different authors - the best of the best. I picked the number nine because it seemed a nice number, large without being overwhelming, and of course if its good enough for Sauron its good enough for me. Then I'd read them all, review them all, and then have an idea how I felt about modern fantasy. That was the idea at least. Of course, the fact I'm writing this eight months after the fact means it hasn't quite gone to plan.

Anyway, what did I get in terms of recommendations? Well, for the first thing, I got the news that I'd read a bit more modern fantasy than I'd realised. I knew that Joe Abercrombie's The First Law fell in this time period - indeed, it celebrated its tenth birthday recently - but had forgotten that Jim Butcher's Codex Alera only just fell outside. I'd also forgotten about Paul Kearney's The Sea Beggars, a series that started very promisingly before getting wrecked on the rocks of publisher problems. Those three authors therefore don't appear below as I already knew about them.

Beyond that, I got recommendations for forty-nine different authors from twenty-one different people. Seven of those authors are self-published. The majority of those recommendations came from the highly talented GR Matthews, whose book 'The Stone Road' has sufficiently impressed me that I'll listen very closely to him. The only self-published author recommended by others was Allan Batchelder, a BFB favourite. In the event, I've decided not to put any of them on my list, because I wanted to concentrate more on what was popular. I will hopefully check out all of them at some point though.

Here's the whole list. I've arranged the recommendations by author rather than by book, and by the number of recommendations each received.

5 - Mark Lawrence, Scott Lynch

4 - Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Naomi Novik

3 - Brian McClellan, Peter Brett

2 - Adrian Tchaikovsky, Brian Staveley, R. Scott Bakker, Ben Aaronovitch, Allan Batchelder, Steven Erikson, Django Wexler, Chris Wooding, Michael Fletcher, Jen Williams, Neil Gaiman, Erin Morgenstern, Patrick Rothfuss, Daniel Abraham

1 - Nnedi Okorafor, Kirsty Logan, Kameron Hurley, Sarah Pinborough, Julia Knight, Emma Knight, Robert Redick, Miles Cameron, Michael Sullivan, Den Patrick, Kate Elliot, Robert Jackson Bennett, NK Jemisin, Alex Marshall, Jo Walton, Christopher Buehlman, Michael Livingston, Tad Williams, Jeff Salyards, Stella Gemmell, Laura Resnick, Ilona Andrews, T.O. Munro, J.P. Ashman, Matt Colville, James Cormier, Barbara Webb, Graham Austin-King (last 6 all SP)

Even before I picked, I was fascinated by the data. Some names came a great deal higher than I expected, others a great deal later. Given how much I'd heard about Patrick Rothfuss, I expected more than two recommendations for him, one of which said "I hated these books myself but they are extremely well regarded". Brian Staveley was another whose names pops up a lot, but who no one wanted to recommend to me. In the event, I read the intro chapters of The Emperor's Blades online and was impressed, then read them in a book borrowed from the library and was bored. No idea how that works!

I also can't help but notice that by and large, it's a fairly masculine list. Naomi Novik is the only woman in the top five recommended and there's only another two in the top twenty. There's sixteen total in the forty-nine, which is not bad, but if I was to remove just three of the people who nominated, I'd have five women nominated out of thirty-four. For whatever reason, the mainstream does not appear to be particularly thinking of women.

The top end of the list is generally dominated by those on the wrong side of the law or the right side if the battle field (or sometimes 'right') - something of a fantasy staple in many ways, but the tone seems much darker. Epic is in. Light-heartedness and adventure - well, there's a bit of it there, particularly among the urban fantasy authors, but it doesn't seem the norm.

Anyway, lets get to the picks. It being eight months after I asked and me being addicted to books, I've gone and read books by a few of the authors above before I ever drew up a list. Those are Scott Lynch, Brandon Sanderson, Ben Aaronovitch, Jen Williams and Miles Cameron. That leaves four slots just like that.

At this moment in time, I don't know who I'm adding to the list. Turns out sifting through 49 authors and making intelligent judgements is pretty difficult, even allowing for all the info out there these days. Also, I'm something of an impulse shopper. I do want to get a decent amount of the people at the top as that's who's really popular out there, but I also want to look at some of the odder concepts out there. 

I'm pretty sure Naomi Novik's hitting the list. She's popular and she's doing something more than same old same old. I'll probably check out at least one of McClellan and Lawrence. McClellan I'm a bit reluctant about because he's compared so much to Sanderson and I'd like to spread out my sampling. With Lawrence, the issue is a lot of people I know and respect can't get on with his brand of grimdark. I suspect I'll be the same, particularly based on kindle samples.

Looking down the list, Wooding's books sound a whole lot of fun and I'm surprised I didn't receive more call outs for him based on conversations after asking. Tchaikovsky and Abraham both have talent, but I'm not sure I need to read more epic fantasy. Erin Morgernstern's The Night Circus has received a lot of praise and the kindle sample is beautifully written; not sure its quite my thing though. Right now, I suspect the last place or two will be filled out by someone from a shortlist of Jo Walton, NK Jemisin and Robert Jackson Bennett. They read beautifully and have intriguing ideas. Again, after the fact of me asking, I see a lot of praise for the latter two.

But I don't know for sure yet. Maybe I'll see someone on the list in a charity bookshop and snap them up, like I just did with Benedict Jacka and China Mieville. Or I'll spot them on kindle sale, which is how Miles Cameron made his way onto the list. In any case, its not like these are the last and only modern fantasy authors I'll ever read. That would be absurd. But these are the only nine I'm definitely reviewing. Once I'm done with those nine, I'll muse about where the genre is, although I'll be referring to more books than are just involved in this.

And I should at least be up to date by that point. And hungry for more books.

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