It has always been difficult for me to narrow down any category to the One Single Greatest Thing. What is my favorite flavor of ice cream? Butter pecan. No,pistachio. No, Chubby Hubby. If I could go anywhere in the world, where would I go? Greece. Or Iceland. Or Santorini. Or Madagascar. You get the picture.
And since sci-fi/fantasy is my genre of choice, I have a lot of recommendations. Do I think everyone should read A Song of Ice and Fire? Well, I think it’s absolutely worth the read, and the series as a whole is one of my favorite works, but not everyone would make it through the beheadings and the main character deaths and the pages and pages and pages and pages (not to mention the waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting).
Do I think everyone should read American Gods, or pretty much everything else by Neil Gaiman? Yes, yes I do. But again, it’s probably not for everyone. Gods and mythology and magic and so forth aren’t necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. And much of his work is a bit on the cerebral side, and not necessarily representative of the genre at large.
So what to recommend as my top picks to represent my beloved genre?
Still, I go back to some of my own favorites.
I recommend Guy Gavriel Kay’s works to anyone who ever picks up a book, and I would specifically recommend Tigana as a brilliant introduction to fantasy literature. The story has a touch of magic, a hint of myth, and thick dollop of history. There’s politicking, there’s mystery, there’s romance–there is everything a reader could ask for in a story, all laid down in Kay’s graceful prose. The story is self-contained, so there are no sequels, no prequels, no intimidating thickness. To top it off, it’s a story of overcoming the odds, of a country wiped not only out of political existence but literally out of memory, and the fight to reclaim a lost heritage. Kay’s works always leave me feeling a little more proud to be a member of the human species, while at the same time feeling a tiny speck of dust in an immense universe: a delightful paradox.
The second story I would recommend–if you can find it–is “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire” by Ysabeau S. Wilce. This short story was my introduction to Wilce’s eclectic, magical world and her topsy-turvy, slightly archaic writing. “Lineaments” is more adult-oriented than her full length young adult novels, starting with Flora Segunda (which I also recommend), though set in the same world. The setting is slightly modern, slightly Victorian steampunk, highly militarized, and 100% original. Wilce’s language is both formal and playful, just as her characters are both strong and vulnerable. She creates a world that shows the reader not the stodgy version of fantasy that we get in typical medieval settings, but rather what fantasy literature could be with just a bit more creative liberty.
Tigana offers a soft landing to those peeking in from outside the fantasy genre, whereas “Lineaments” will spin you around and leave you reeling. Both stories showcase the best of what the genre has to offer.