A few months back, on the mailing list for my Clarion West class, someone started a thread asking people for their Top Five novels. I hesitated to contribute until it became clear that a lot of other people in the class couldn’t limit themselves to just five, either.
The question of Top Five is difficult, too. Top Five that I like best now? Top Five most influential on my own work (even if I’ve come to realize that they aren’t all that good)? Top Five that I should claim to like, so everyone will think I’m, like, really smart and all?
I went with something between 1 and 2. But, yeah, there’s way more than five.
Little House on the Prairie series, Laura Ingalls Wilder: My mother taught me to read before I started kindergarten, using a “teach your toddler to read by bribing them with treats” method that probably flies in the face of modern educational techniques. But it worked. In first grade, when most of my classmates were learning to read, me and this other girl who could already read had our own separate special reading class, and the teacher would take us to the school library and pick out books for us (or maybe she gave lists of suggested books to our parents; my memory is a little fuzzy on that point). I remember reading all the E.B. White children’s classics, and I liked them, but not nearly so much as I liked the Little House on the Prairie books. I desperately wanted to live in pioneer days. I used to think this was because the life depicted in the books was so different from mine. Now I’ve begun to suspect that, since my parents were doing this hippie back-to-the-land/raise-your-own-pigs/grow-your-own-vegetables thing, I liked the books because there were aspects that reminded me of my own life. Only with long dresses, and horses.
The Bible: For my 6th birthday, I asked for a Bible. What I really wanted, but never told my parents (probably because I assumed they already knew), was a fashion accessory Bible. There was another little girl around my age at church who always brought this pretty New Testament with a white leather cover and gold-edged pages. THAT was the Bible I wanted. Instead (since I could read), my parents gave me the Children’s Living Bible: the complete text, only in simple language that a child could understand. Mind you, the content wasn’t edited. Every gang rape, stoning, animal sacrifice and tent-peg assassination is still in there, only at a 4th grade reading level. No one bothered to tell me that the Bible was different from a novel, so I read it like it was a novel. I loved it! Well, except for the boring parts. But I skipped those. This was probably the origin of my love for epic fantasy. Move over, floor-length calico dresses! Bring on the swords and epic battles!
The Tower of Geburah, John White: I can’t re-read this, because I suspect that the Suck Fairy will have waved her magic wand over it. (According to a Boskone panel, the Suck Fairy is the magical entity who reveals to you that your favorite books suck. There’s also a Racism Fairy and a Sexism Fairy.) The book is a blatant Narnia rip-off (magical television sets instead of a wardrobe) for the children of evangelical Christian parents who thought the Christian message in the Chronicles of Narnia was too subtle. But I hadn’t read the Narnia books when I was 8, so I thought this was amazing. It’s got swords, and castles, and a nine-foot tall evil sorceror, and a barely averted human sacrifice scene that gave me nightmares for weeks.
The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis: I read these so many times. Despite the elves in my own epic fantasy world, it’s WAY more Narnia pastiche than Tolkien pastiche.
The Chronicles of Prydain, Lloyd Alexander: I’ve stolen ideas from this series too.
The Dark is Rising (series), Susan Cooper: Oh, the badly-written prophetic poetry I tried to work into my own novel after reading these! I also tried to work in a subplot about King Arthur (though The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay) also deserves some blame for inducing me to think that this was ever a good idea). Fortunately, the bad poetry and Arthurian subplot went by the wayside while I was still in highschool.
Anne of Green Gables series (first 3 books), Lucy Maud Montgomery: There are 7 books. I think the series kind of jumps the shark after the first 3. Especially book 7, which ends up being WWI pro-Allied propaganda more than a compelling story (though anyone who thinks propaganda necessarily makes bad art hasn’t seen Casablanca). But the earlier books are awesome. I was reading one of them in elementary school during our end-of-the-day free reading period, and I didn’t even hear the bell ring. It was a very loud bell.
Emily of New Moon series, Lucy Maud Montgomery: Emily is the emo-Anne. Dark-haired, brooding, consistently unpopular with her classmates, wants to be a writer … she even has pointed ears, and people comment on how she looks kind of like an elf. I have to point out that, while not necessarily pre-Tolkien (I think these came out around the same time as The Hobbit), this series is DEFINITELY pre-LOTR. So there. Tolkien did not invent elves.
These are dangerous books to give to preteen girls unless you want them to become writers.
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare: Can we include plays? I include this one because I’m kind of obsessed with Romans (I put them in my epic fantasy series), and I think it started here. Though I’m not sure whether it was the text of the play that did it, or the movie portrayal of Mark Antony by a young and hawt Marlon Brando.
The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien: Okay, I admit it, I didn’t put elves in my epic fantasy series until I read this. It seemed like a good idea at the time….
I read these one summer, and was so hooked I stayed up each night reading until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer.
The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, The Last Enchantment, Mary Stewart: I stole a lot of stuff from these, too. This was the first novelized re-telling of the Arthurian legends that I ever read, so it always felt like canon to me.
The Thornbirds, Colleen McCullough
Memory, Sorrow & Thorn (trilogy), Tad Williams: One of the best surprise twist endings in all of epic fantasy. It undermines the conventions of the genre in the same way that The Murder of Roger Akroyd did for mystery.
The Wheel of Time (12 books and counting), Robert Jordan: Books 4 and 5 are among the best epic fantasy ever written. If he’d finished the series in 2 more volumes after number 5, this would be an amazing work of fantasy fiction. Instead, the plot basically stalls for five books. Five 900+ page books. And yet, on the strength of those earlier volumes, I still want to put it on my list.
The First Man in Rome (and subsequent books), Colleen McCullough: Incredibly dense Roman historical fiction. Thank you Colleen McCullough, for doing so much research for YOUR novel that I can just read the appendices instead of doing my own research! (actually I’m exaggerating, I’ve done lots of my own research on ancient Rome, and have the 400-page history textbooks to prove it)
A Song of Ice and Fire (4 books and waiting), George R.R. Martin: It’s unclear to me that Martin is ever going to actually finish book 5, let alone the entire series. I include it anyway because it’s SO well-written, and the structure of the first book is such a wonderful text for anyone else who wants to see how to sidestep many of the problems inherent in writing an epic fantasy series (how to avoid information overload on the part of the reader, especially too many names of characters and places, how to bury foreshadowing in plain view, how to avoid long and boring descriptions of scenery that have no relevance to the plot….).
The Deptford Trilogy and The Cornish Trilogy, Roberston Davies: Smart, humorous, well-written books that nonetheless avoid playing literary tricks for their own sake, or trying to show off how clever the author thinks he is; everything is subservient to the demands of telling a good story. My favorite is book 3 of The Cornish Trilogy, The Lyre of Orpheus, which is kind of like a book version of Waiting for Guffman, only funnier.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke: This seems to be a book that people either love or hate. I loved it. It’s like a really long Jane Austen novel. With fairies and magicians. And footnotes. Really long footnotes.
Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card
The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon
Flora Segunda, Ysabeau S. Wilce: After reading this the first time, I wanted to immediately go back and re-read it, to find all the clever bits I might have missed, and have a better appreciation of how they all fit together.
Okay, so that was a few more than five.