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My Top 10 Fantasy Series

Top 10 Fantasy Book Series

Picking my Top 10 Fantasy series is such a subjective task.  The books I love carry with them the weight of not just my own tastes, but also my nostalgia.  Some of the books I’d put in my top 10 aren’t even objectively the best books, but they are books that I have loved at some point in my life and want to share with people.

Some you may have heard of, others, perhaps not. I’ve not bothered putting Tolkien or Pratchett on the list because if you don’t’ love Tolkien or Pratchett you don’t love Fantasy. But these are my personal Top 10 fantasy series of all time (in no particular order).

The Name of the Wind

The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss


First Book: The Name of the Wind

When The Name of the Wind was first released, my mother came home with a hardback copy.  She’d picked it up on the way home because it sounded like something I might like, and did I ever!  I would go so far to say that this series is the best of modern fantasy.

It is a story of youth, told by a man who is to become the world’s most renowned magician.  It’s full of action, adventure, romance, friendship and above all, magic!

BattleAxe

The Axis Trilogy by Sara Douglass


First Book: BattleAxe

When I was twelve a friend of the family gave me a book for my birthday.  That book was Sara Douglass’ Threshold.  Looking back I was way too young to have been given that book, let alone be reading it, but it started my life-long love affair with everything Sara Douglass.  I loved her so much I even applied to be her shadow for my year 10 work experience.  Even though it didn’t happen, I still have the reply that she sent me to this day.

The Axis Trilogy is an epic series full of family feuds, the magic of the stars and doomed romances.  It has strong female characters, tackles issues of abuse and religious zealotry, environmentalism, xenophobia and is the series that I come back to again and again.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Gentleman Bastards Sequence by Scott Lynch


First Book: The Lies of Locke Lamora

This whole series is irreverent and darkly humorous. Locke and his compatriots carry out schemes and heists and are the perfect anti-heroes that you can’t help but fall in love with.  The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step in to its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely half way through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The characterisation in this series is superb and the setting is so rich you almost feel you could step in to its pages.  It’s a long series that is barely half way through, but it’s one that is so worth committing to.

The Dark is Rising

The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper


First Book: Over Sea, Under Stone

This is the series that made me want to become an historian and started my lifelong love affair with everything Arthurian.  I read the series in the fifth grade, and turned to my parents and told them that I wanted to find The Holy Grail.  When they asked me how, I said research!

This is such a fantastic series for adults and children alike, and is so woefully overlooked.  They are darker than a lot of children’s fantasy novels which is very welcome.  The first book is more of a seaside adventure story and the books get darker as they progress until they end with an epic battle of Arthurian proportions.  The Dark is Rising Sequence will make you fall in love with reading all over again.

The Earthsea Quartet

The Earthsea Cycle by Ursula Le Guin


First Book:  A Wizard of Earthsea

Ursula Le Guin is probably as influential as Tolkien.  Many of the series in this list have clearly been influenced by The Earthsea Cycle.  So many modern fantasy series rely on appendices, family trees, and other extra information to help build their worlds.  With Earthsea though Le Guin offers us a master class in world building.  The evil itself is largely abstract; a force rather than an evil with a face. The series tackles the huge task of covering themes like life and death.

The first three books act as a Trilogy and can easily be read on their own.  The fourth book Tehanu is usually packaged with the first three (while the last two books are largely ignored) but is a largely different book in substance and style to the three that came before.  This series is a must read for anyone who loves fantasy.

Taliesin

The Pendragon Cycle by Stephen Lawhead


First Book:  Taliesin

I picked up the first two books in this series from my school library when I was in my early teens.  Since then I’ve tried to get a copy of the whole series, but they’re surprisingly difficult to get hold of (especially if you want the whole series with the same covers – seriously publishers, WHY?).

Arthurian legend is a subject covered in literature time and time again, but in my opinion, this is one of the best.  It mixes Arthurian legend with Celtic history and even myths of Atlantis with elements if historical Minoan culture!  It’s a fantastic mix of fantasy and historical fiction that is so well researched you could almost believe it to be true.

Hood

King Raven Trilogy by Stephen Lawhead


First Book:  Hood

The Legend of Robin Hood is known by pretty much everyone.  It’s been made in to countless films and plays and stories, but never has it been done in such an original and well-researched way. Lawhead sets his trilogy in the time of the Norman Conquest on the Welsh borders and gives every element of the story its own place in history.

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Obernewtyn

The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody


First Book:  Obernewtyn

I must admit, my obsession with The Obernewtyn Chronicles has waned somewhat over the years.  I was absolutely obsessed with the books in my childhood, but as more time passed between her releasing books and  I got older, I simply lost interest.  There was nearly a decade between book 4 and 5 and there is only so long I can keep my expectation for a series going, especially since she started other series during that time.

Still, despite my brief disenchantment, The Obernewtyn Chronicles remain a seminal work of YA literature.  Like most post-apocalyptic novels this series covers everything that a coming-of-age story needs and goes further covering deeper elements of prejudice, tolerance, responsibility and even human and animal rights.

After 28 years the series was finally finished with the 7th novel released in 2015, so you’re safe to pick it up now.

 

The Mists of Avalon

Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley


First Book:  The Mists of Avalon

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Avalon series takes Arthurian legend and re-tells it from the perspective of its female protagonists, which is a stroke of genius.  The experience of reading these books is therefore completely different to what you get from many other books in this genre.  The big battles and power struggles that are usually so prevalent in Arthurian legend instead serve as backdrops to the lives of its women.

While it’s fantasy, it does serve as an important work of feminist literature, giving voice to the women who are largely silent in the old legends.

 

The Screaming Staircase

Lockwood & Co. by Jonathan Stroud


First Book: The Screaming Staircase

It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited for the release of new books.  I describe the Lockwood & Co. series as if J. K. Rowling had written The Woman in Black.  While it’s technically middle-grade fiction there is a lot here to be excited about.   The prose is witty with beautifully fleshed out characters with completely unique personalities.

There are chills galore and an overarching story that makes me desperate to read on. I can’t recommend this series enough!

So there they are, my top 10 fantasy series.  And the best thing?  There’s still plenty more out there to discover!

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Review: ‘The Phantom Tree’ by Nicola Cornick

I Blame Wizards - The Phantom Tree

Nicola Cornick’s The Phantom Tree, while not perfect, was a pleasant surprise.  It was an easy read with some fantastic elements of historical fiction that were believable and genuine. It had similarities to A. S. Byatt’s Possession but lacked its literary focus and genuine depth, yet despite this it was an enjoyable read, if not entirely convincing in its narrative.

The Phantom Tree tells the concurrent stories of two friends, separated by time.  Allison Bannister is a woman living in the present, ripped from her family and stranded in a time that isn’t hers.  Mary Seymour is a woman lost from history who holds a secret she needs to communicate through time itself.

Tudor historical fiction is a dime a dozen these days.  It’s always been popular, so the fact that Nicola Cornick tried to do something different with the formula is commendable.  Her descriptions of the period are emotive and beautiful and gave a deep sense of what life would have been like for the ‘forgotten’ aristocracy of the Tudor period.  It was less about the large political machinations and big personalities that punctuate what we know about the time, and instead put these elements in the background of a much more personal story.  They gave a sense of time and place, rather than becoming the focus of what is, essentially, a very personal story.

It’s a shame then that the modern-day narrative didn’t have the same heart or depth as the historical narrative.  Cornick’s love is obviously history, and that love showed through every word where the Tudor period was concerned.  The modern elements simply felt flat and lifeless in comparison.  We are introduced to Allison when she is already well established in our time.  She has a job, an apartment, has already had a serious relationship (which is rekindled with absolutely no spark or romance) and so we never get to know the difficulty she must have had adjusting to modern life having just come from a time that is so far removed from our own as to be a different planet.  Despite Allison being the protagonist, it was Mary who had all the characterisation and soul.

I think one of the reasons this may have been the case is that there is no internal logic or believability to the central premise of magic and time travel.  At no point is it explained why it is possible.  All the characters simply shrug and seem to say ‘that’s just the way it is’.  There wasn’t enough in it that could suspend my disbelief at the fantasy elements.  If it had been as simply as ‘time travel exists’ I probably could have been ok with that, but there are so many other elements jammed in there that didn’t heighten the narrative at all, that it did bear some kind of explanation. There are visions, precognition, telepathy and a weird telepathic romance that left me a little confused as to why it was necessary.

The ultimate resolution to The Phantom Tree was far too neat.  All Allison’s modern day compatriots simply accept her story of time travelling without even a blink of disbelief.  In only ten years we are meant to simply accept that she perfectly came to grips with modern life, learns to drive, studies abroad with a university despite having no documentation to even prove that she exists and lands a dream job with a start-up travel company that people would probably kill for, despite there being countries on the itinerary that hadn’t even been discovered at the time she was born.  Even the answer to the plot’s great mystery somehow just seems to appear in her mind, despite the plot being set up as a tale of sleuthing through time.

There was a lot to commend The Phantom Tree as a work of historical fiction.  But the fantasy elements and blind acceptance of the fantastical situations by the books characters were a little hard to swallow.  Where the historical elements flowed naturally and worked as a believable narrative, the modern-day and fantasy elements felt somehow forced and made the book in to something that I don’t think it should ever have been.

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Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ by J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildThere are no words to express how tragically disappointed I was by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This is not a story or a play that can stand on it’s own feet. It relied completely and utterly on an audience already engaged in the Harry Potter novels and did nothing but rehash the stories already told. It felt…lazy. There was nothing new, nothing interesting. Even the ‘new’ characters were just re-skins of the characters that we already knew and loved, even the villain was simply a repetition of the ones we’d already put to bed long ago.

I realise that using a play as a medium already puts limitations on the in depth story telling that so many Harry Potter fans have come to expect, but conveying that depth is part of the talent in writing a script. From the stage directions Harry Potter and the Cursed Child already relies far too heavily on a huge budget and special effects. This is why it feels lazy. Rather than using a limited medium to be truly special and unique it feels like it’s trying to be a novel, spliced with a film and getting neither right. I don’t doubt for a moment that the play will be spectacular. I’ve heard great things about the actors, and even better things about the direction, but that’s the problem for me. It will be good because it had a budget and not because it’s actually good!

The story is exactly what you might expect. Adults with parenting problems, children under the shadows of their parents legacies. My main issue was that there was no uniqueness to the characters. Albus and Scorpio felt like mixtures of James/Harry Potter and Severus Snape/Draco Malfoy. The entire plot revolved around revisiting events from the previous Harry Potter novels. There was scope to give the new generation and indeed the old generation a new villain to fight, but instead we just repeated the same old moments and movements with the same old characters. It was all just more of the same!

I don’t want to spoil anything, indeed I don’t even think I could. The time travel angle has been discussed to death in countless films, books and video games that what you think might happen does happen. It held no surprises or unique points of interest. Everything had been done. This wasn’t simply a play set in the Harry Potter universe. It was a slight retelling of stories already set in the Harry Potter universe!

Do I want to see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the theatre? Sure I do! I’m sure it will be a feast for the senses in every way possible. But the truth is that I, like many people, might never get that chance. I’ve read countless plays that manage to be deep, dark and atmospheric without all the extra trappings which were such a joy to read. This was not one of them.

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Review: ‘Outlander’ by Diana Gabaldon

Outlander by Diana GabalonBy complete accident, due to a mis-clicking incident while I was making my lunch, I happened to see the first episode of Outlander on Netflix a few days ago.  It was not something that had appealed to me as I’d heard the novel was a bit of a sweeping romance which is not the kind of genre I usually go in for, but I watched the whole episode and ended up completely hooked.  I couldn’t stop watching.  I finished the whole first series in three days and was blown away by its scope and content. 

Was it a sweeping romance?  Sure it was, but it was so much more than that.  Here I had finally found a show that was not afraid to tackle big issues like accountability, assault, both physical and sexual of both genders, and for me, the biggest and most impressive feat, really delving in to the psychological implications that come with each of these, regardless of gender and sexuality. The very last episode absolutely blew me away with it’s violence and tragedy, and its willingness to show the psychological impact and vulnerabilities in the aftermath of sexual assault when all too often your body will respond physically when your mind, soul and spirit could not be more unwilling. 

With a television show that managed to do so much in only 16 episodes I figured I simply had to read the book that inspired it.  The books are always more detailed so I couldn’t wait to pick it up and give it a go.  Last night I hit 52% and put it down in disgust.  Where was the strong, independent Claire who is finding her feet in a world she doesn’t understand?  Where was the powerful but vulnerable Jamie who easily navigates the dangers of his existence while still finding himself as the leader of his clan?  They didn’t exist.  Instead I was given a first person Claire who’s selfishness and arrogance abounded at every turn, a Jamie who really was a sadistic brute, and worst of all, a Captain Randall who’s behaviour was purely antagonistic, until he showed homosexual proclivities at which point he was viewed with abject disgust.

I read as far as Claire’s beating at the hand of her husband and then put down the book, never to be picked up again.  Instead of strong characters with personality and depth I was treated to a series of female denigrations which Claire accepts after very little fight, a complete lack of depth to any of the characters beyond their gender and sexual stereotypes and a general feel of patriarchal dominance which I just couldn’t get past.

Very rarely does a different medium so vastly improve on its source content, but in the case of Outlander I can say with absolute certainty that the Starz series is a vast improvement.  I can’t judge the book too harshly as the basic plot is the same and the series couldn’t exist without it.  What I must say is kudos to the writers at Starz and their ability to take two dimensional, stereotyped characters and create something with so much depth and feeling.

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Review: ‘City of Halves’ by Lucy Ingliss

City of Halves by Lucy InglissThere is really only one thing I felt after finishing ‘City of Halves’…. Why? No seriously why did anything in this book happen? You know what, I’ll go one step further, why did this book happen? Some of the ideas were cool, and in the hands of a much more talented writer this book would truly have had some potential, but nothing in this novel went anywhere, or meant anything. Also, what is with teen fiction these days and irresponsible parenting (the parents IN the novels, not parents who let their children read them)???

Meet Lily, a generic pretty blonde who is totally pretty, but totally doesn’t think she’s pretty, but who her friends and family constantly tell she’s pretty but she’s totally so modest that she will never admit that she’s pretty. Lily falls for the hunky broody guy with all the tattoos who is apparently handsome, but all I know about him is that he has tattoos and an ‘angular’ face. Lily also has a Dad, who is apparently a human rights lawyer (although in the novel, the descriptions of his cases sound like White Collar crime to me…) who constantly uses his daughter’s ‘hacking’ skills to violate people’s human rights…like privacy…to win cases. But apparently he’s a totally stand up guy. His name is Ed. That’s all I know about him.

These humans live in an alternate future where healthcare is no longer free, and struggling ‘human rights’ lawyers can apparently afford to live in Temple and go out for dinner every night. Lily tells us that her Dad isn’t wealthy, so in order to live the way they do (new phones and laptops for Christmas?) this alterna-London must be very different to the one I lived in! Set primarily within the boundaries of the London Wall, it turns out that every myth and legend you’ve ever heard about is real. Literally, every single one. It’s like Lucy Inglis took a crow bar to the top of her novel, prised it open, and just shoveled that shit in there. She introduces so many characters who are only in the novel for a page that I just didn’t know who was who anymore! There was just too much information with too little actually happening.

The main antagonists of the plot, a shadowy group known as ‘The Agency’ make almost no sense. Lily and her hunky BF Regan of course have to thwart their completely illegal, immoral and inhumane plot to…cure cancer? But seriously, their actions are completely illegal, immoral and inhumane…but they’re also trying to cure cancer. And somehow all of this has something to do with a prophecy in which Lily will be the one drive back the Chaos. The prophecy and the Chaos War become the driving force of the last quarter of the novel, but have literally nothing to do with the plot. Literally nothing. I’ve thought about it long and hard, and tried to make a connection beyond two pages at the end of a chapter involving a stone…but that was all. Also given that the prophecy totally didn’t come true in any sense of the word…Lily saved nothing (ok, I guess she DID move a stone), and SPOILER ALERT hunky BF doesn’t die, the Prophecy part of the novel served literally no function.

I was going to write more, and have a good old rant, but I thought to myself once again…why? Why waste even one more precious second of my life on this absolute piece of crap. If anyone reads this review, please do yourself a favour, never, never, ever read this book.

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