Fantasy novels don't arise by magic. An aspiring fantasy author has to learn the craft, but also discover the roots of fantasy literature, as well as history and mythology. The more you've read, the more you know — and the better equipped you'll be for your journey into the lands of imagination. So we asked some of our favorite fantasy authors to name the books that every fantasy author should know. (And most of these are also books that any self-respecting fantasy reader should be familiar with.)
Here are 10 books every would-be fantasy author ought to have read. And no, the list doesn't include Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia — because we all assume you've already read those.
Top image: Dragon Dawn by Anne Stokes
"My 'single desert-island book for the aspiring fantasy author,' would probably be Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber. Tons to learn from there. The way Leiber counterbalanced Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser's superhuman prowess with their flawed humanity; his mesmerizing evocation of the city of Lankhmar; the sparkling beauty and wit of his description and dialogue — all this, plus the best swordfights ever written!" — Saladin Ahmed, author of Throne of the Crescent Moon.
"This and Thurber's other comic fairy tales, particularly The White Deer, were an enormous influence on many of us. Thurber manages simultaneously to satirize mythic fiction, and to move us with its truth and beauty. I don't know how he does it; it's really line by line. Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, which I adored, is in large part a Thurber homage that nonetheless soars and sings. It's as if they've taken on the wizards' challenge to fight with one foot in water and the other on the shore . . . and won." — Ellen Kushner, author of the Nebula-nominated The Privilege of the Sword.
"If any one book turned me toward fantasy - though I think the instinct was already there - it has to be The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, which was given to me by a beloved second/third-grade teacher: a tall, skinny Irish lady who looked rather like Eleanor Roosevelt, and who seemed to spot me for whatever I was early on. We remained friends until her death, and one my very proudest moments remains the day I walked over to her house to give her one of the earliest copies of A Fine and Private Place, my first novel. The Wind in the Willows remains, for me, absolutely sui generis, as much of a one-shot miracle as The Lord of the Rings itself: no more explainable than Gollum. Children's book or not, the bloody thing changed my life, that's all." — Peter S. Beagle, author of The Last Unicorn
"It's a fairy tale in the truest sense of the term, but a fairy tale for adults; a beautifully written, beautifully crafted circuitous narrative that doesn't reveal its innermost secrets until it comes around full circle at the end. As a fantasy author, it reminds me of the heights to which the genre can aspire." — Jacqueline Carey, author of the Kushiel novels and the recently released Saints Astray.
5) The Structures of Everyday Life (Civilization & Capitalism: 15th - 18th century, Volume 1) by Fernand Braudel
"If you're a fantasist writing about a pre-Industrial society — or even one writing about the axis between that and mechanization — you need to know a lot about a world tremendously far from our own experience; one in which, say, most people owned few clothes because it took hours of human labor to make a few yards of cloth. Even if you're lucky enough to remember a mom or grandma darning socks or patching a shirt's elbow . . . we've come too far already. Social historians like Braudel unearth and analyse minutely what people ate and wore, where and how they lived, to give a sense of the fabric of a lost world we can cherry-pick for verisimilitude, from a well-stocked larder. You don't need to know everything, but you must feel it in your bones." — Kushner, who also won the World Fantasy Award for Thomas The Rhymer.
"Hofstadter showed me — and he never stops reminding me — that reality is weird and marvelous and complex. If you're going to write fantasy, you have to come prepared to keep up." — Lev Grossman, author of The Magician King.
"[Aspiring fantasy authors should read] lots of mythology — any mythology, really. I've enjoyed surveying the myths of many cultures, but I can see the value in also going in-depth on any single culture's myth structure. Fascinating to see the commonalities across cultures, and the cycles through which myths flow over the course of history. So much of fantasy these days is derivative of other fantasy; maybe by going back to the source, we'll at least see more work that's derivative in different ways." — N.K. Jemisin, author of The Killing Moon, who also recommends spending lots of time on TVTropes.org to see what's been done to death.
"You'll find alternate and arcane meanings and ideas embedded in words you previously took for granted. Use it like a standard dictionary or just open it at random and read. An entry on a single word can generate story ideas." — Richard Kadrey, author of Aloha From Hell.
"Fantasy writer or not, Camelot freak or not, no one should go without reading The Once and Future King. My test for the ones who matter most to me is whether they can both make me laugh and cry. T. H. White can do that; while Tolkien, undeniably magisterial as he is (whatever that word exactly means) can't. The great Irishman James Stephens can do it in spades, sometimes almost simultaneously, as can Ursula LeGuin and the man she called "the ancestor of us all" — Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, eighteenth Baron Dunsany. But they're all to be read, and there's no way you can't learn from every one of them." — Beagle, whose latest book is Sleight of Hand.
"This is the book that showed me what it meant to write about magic as if it were actually real: describing it specifically, precisely, in ordinary modern language, with the characters who observe it reacting to it not with conventional expressions of wonder and surprise but in realistic, psychologically plausible ways. " — Grossman, whose The Magicians is becoming a TV series.
" I think Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy should be required reading for anybody in this genre. It might seem like dense academic language for some, but I actually found it clear and accessible as it broke down all fantasy into four broad taxonomic categories, then examined the commonalities — and exceptions — for each. For those writers who really want to understand the literary footsteps they're walking, and who find our current marketing-driven genre structure restrictive and confusing (e.g., is it URBAN fantasy or is it urban FANTASY?), this is helpful." — Jemisin, who also wrote the Inheritance Trilogy, beginning with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.
And we'll let Beagle have the last word: "You can learn a surprising amount from third and fourth-rate writers, too - if only what not to do. As my old role model, Haff, the beggar-poet hero of the old musical Kismet, says to — of all people, Omar Khayyam — 'Omar, my friend, there is always something to be learned... even from fools.'"