Fantasy posts
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Who will take Tolkien’s place?

The Lord of the Rings

Over the past week and a half, I have posted several articles on the Lord of the Rings.  I don’t think anyone can deny the importance of Tolkien’s work to the fantasy genre, but maybe it is time to start looking beyond Middle Earth, to find the next great classic fantasy novel.  There have been several pretenders to the throne, various novels or series of books that for a time have come close to the popularity of Tolkien’s work, but so far, none have lasted the test of time.  I can’t possibly list them all as there are far too many but I will go through a few of the past, present, and future claimants to the throne…

Dragonlance

The Dragonlance series by Weis & Hickman – Back in the 1980’s, before computer video games hit their prominence, the game fantasy enthusiasts played was Dungeons and Dragons: a role-playing game played with character sheets, dice, and active imaginations.  The popularity of this game was in part fuelled by the massive popularity of the Dragonlance fantasy series of books with Tannis Half-Elven, Flint the Dwarf, the twins Caramon and Raistlin, and the Halfling Tasslehoff.  The books were exciting and fitted in perfectly to the role-playing world where every adventuring party was comprised of an Elf, a Dwarf, a warrior, a wizard, and a Halfling.  It was unsurprising where the inspiration for these characters came from, as the writers were keen Dungeon and Dragon enthusiasts themselves.

However despite their one time popularity and being a good read, I think modern readers of fantasy would now find these concepts a little dated, and the days when these novels outshone The Lord of the Rings have long past.

Wheel of Time

Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (and later novels by Brandon Sanderson).  I feel I have been reading these novels all my life.  I read the first of the Wheel of Time series as a teenager, thinking I was starting just another fantasy trilogy.  However, when I reached my mid to late thirties, I found I was still reading them!  The series hit book 14 before it reached its conclusion in The Last Battle.  Sadly the original writer of the first 11 books past away half way through book 12 so Brandon Sanderson had to come in and finish the series.  Fortunately, he was given extensive notes on how Robert Jordan wanted the story to end, so the many readers of the series weren’t left wondering.  Despite the novels epic scale and the long journey that a multitude of readers, like myself, spent from childhood to adult reading them, I doubt the series will ever be considered in the same breath as The Lord of the Rings.  I really liked the books but the critics were never quite so kind (they said it was too long!) so I doubt it will ever achieve the necessary gravitas to be taken seriously as a classic of the genre.  However, it could make a fantastic T.V. series or set of films.  Tolkien’s The Hobbit was unnecessarily stretched into 3 films when 1 or 2 would have done – with the Wheel of Time, you won’t be running out of material anytime soon.

Book 3 Ship of Destinyfarseer trilogy

The Farseer series and Liveship traders by Robin Hobb.  This is possibly the closest candidate we have available to be considered a modern classic in the fantasy genre.  Robin Hobb writes beautifully, her descriptive power is second to none, and her characters are always well thought out, with genuine personalities of their own.  These two series have different characters and plot-lines, but share the same world, so just as with Tolkien’s Middle Earth, it becomes richer and more real with every passing novel.  Will her novels pass the test of time and be loved down the generations as Tolkien’s have been?  Only time will tell.

Druss

Drenai saga by David Gemmell.  Since the death of David Gemmell, an annual award has been setup in his name to honour and find new and exciting fantasy writers.  This was to honour the name of the man who was such a great talent in writing heroic fantasy novels.  All his novels are fast paced and exciting, full of heroic deeds and terrible enemies.  It is the characters of his novels, and in particular those from the Drenai set of books, that are key to Gemmell’s writing.  Each character has a convincing back-story, personality and set of emotions.  Gemmell’s fantasy realms may not quite have the level of detail of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, but his characters are just as real and that for me is the most important aspect of writing.

game of thrones

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. When I first read the first novel in this series back in 1999, I knew I’d found something special.  I didn’t quite expect the astounding success we see now, with adverts in every newspaper and magazine, together with billboards and posters in every bus shelter and train station, but then I never took into account the series becoming a worldwide Television hit with HBO.  Even so, even back then I was sure this was more than the average set of fantasy novels and as the series continued I became only more convinced of this.  When the TV series started, I loved this too, marvelling at how well they’d managed to convert his world of Knights, white walkers, grand castles and huge battles to the screen.  However, the incredible success of the TV series has put an element of doubt in my mind – not because they’re not good, they’re absolutely fantastic, but because now the TV series has caught up with the books, the story looks set to continue in that format first.  Will the remaining novels ever be written now? I don’t know, and even if they are, will they be as good?  Maybe how we judge success in the field of fantasy writing has changed.  Maybe the world is no longer looking for a set of novels to be as acclaimed as Tolkien’s but instead want to rival its success in the box-office or the level of merchandise available.  Certainly more money can be made that way, but I think that would be a shame.  The world deserves great fantasy novels, will you be the person to write the next great classic?

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21 Comments

  1. I’d like to suggest Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, starting with The Name of the Wind, followed by The Wise Man’s Fear.

    Unfortunately, he still has to finish the 3rd book of the trilogy…

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  2. I vote for Gemmell every time! Robin Hobb’s Farseer and Rain Wild Chronicles would be a close second though. In my own little fantasy world, I’d like to see my name up with the greats you’ve listed here. Well I can dream…

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    • All the writers on the list were once in your position, waiting with anticipation before the release of their first novel. The only way you can guarantee your name will never appear is by failing to write your novel…but you’ve now taken that step.

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  3. Jeremy woods says

    I love Wheel of Time, ( it’s nice to see it done), both Farseer, and Rain Wild, and I love Game of Thrones ( Martin needs to finish, or his legacy could be in doubt). Your not putting Brandon Sanderson on this list? He got to be one of the top fantasy writers out there.

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    • There are so many authors that I could have put on this list, I just couldn’t include everyone or I’d still be writing this post now! I love Brandon Sanderson too, especially his Knights of Radiance series.

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  4. Andy Dignan says

    I would personally go for Raymond e Feist, have been hooked on his books since the 80’s, but there have been many so called teenage fantasy books that I’ve borrowed off my daughter (too miserable to buy my own books), that I’ve found to be great reads with brilliant characters, that its hard to narrow it down to just one author…

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    • Yes, Raymond E Feist is certainly another I could have added to the list, but you’re right – it is so difficult with so many great fantasy authors around.

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  5. Asking who will replace Tolkien is a bit like asking who will replace Homer. Tolkien was an originator of the modern genre, and hence would be hard to outdo, and I doubt anyone wants to, as we all love Middle Earth. I am often puzzled by readers or critics who say a work is too much like Lord of the Rings. That’s a bit like eating linguine and complaining that it’s too similar to spaghetti. If I’m reading fantasy, it’s basically because I like variations of Middle Earth, and there are a lot that have much of their own to offer.

    I love the Wheel of Time. I think it’s most distinctive quality is its deconstruction of hero concepts. None of the heroes in the series really wants to be.

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    • You raise some interesting points Joel. I think the problem with books being too similar to The Lord of the Rings, came about in the 1980’s when virtually every fantasy novel had elves, dwarves, Halflings etc. Readers craved something new, and now the fantasy genre is much more diverse.

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      • That’s a good point that I forgot about. The thing that initially attracted me to The Wheel of Time was that there are not such characters until later, and their introduction is done well with lots of build-up and legending (e.g. Rand doesn’t believe that Ogiers are real until he meets one). The stories don’t depend on the peculiar qualities of dwarves, etc. Tolkien can do that (he can do whatever the hell he wants) but other cases I’ve read have been done badly.

        However, a certain vocal minority act like this hasn’t changed and that any fantasy in a pseudo-medieval setting is a “Tolkien rip-off.” Last month I found someone complaining on Reddit that The Eye of the World was just a rip-off of the Fellowship of the Ring. The similarities are superficial and genre-specific. The way the books are written is not similar at all. In literary terms Jordan departed pretty far from Tolkien. I think such critics need to understand the motivations of each author: Tolkien had a specific sort of tale-telling in mind, and Jordan had a very different sort of literary sensibility. I need to reread these books…

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  6. There will always be critics Joel, as it is impossible to please everyone. You’re right that The Eye of the World is a very different book from any of Tolkien’s, but what can you do? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, however flawed their reasoning. Some people will never like fantasy novels, however much we try to convince them, so really it is best just not to worry about it; it’s their loss…

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  7. Interesting choices – and would love to discuss a few others, however, for me, I’ll suggest my idea of a close 2nd place / runner-up to Tolkien is Guy Gavriel Kay. The depth of characters, the historical research and captivating storylines make for great literature.

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      • Many times. In fact, read most of his works and suggest The Fionavar Tapestry as strong competition to Wheel of Time and Lord of the Rings (though the latter remains my favourite).

        P.S. Terry Goodkind and David Eddings are very good too!

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  8. You’ve got to be kidding with the Dragonlance entry. They are entertaining but not comparable to J.R.R.
    I have read all of the books you listed, but the only one equal to J.R.R. is G.R.R… and it is likely that in 200 years those two will be the only authors on this list still being published.
    Some books that are better than the others you listed (but still not as good as J.R.R. or G.R.R.) include The Chronicles of Thoma Covenant the Unbeliever and The Prophet of Lamath.

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    • You’ve made a few valid points here. Yes, it’s true that it is difficult to compare the Dragonlance series to LoTR. However, don’t forget how popular the Dragonlance series once was. In the 80’s, when the Dungeons and Dragons phenomena was in full swing, everyone knew of the books. Their success did much to establish fantasy writing as a genre in its own right.

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