Why the Fantasy Genre Sucks

With a title like that I suppose I’m going to have to explain what I mean because I can already sense my fellow geeks sharpening their crossed bows and loading their broadlong swords made from mithrilarian steel as they prepare to cast firefrost orbs at me. Hear me out.

You see, I was introduced to the world J.R.R. Tolkien created at an early age. I’ll pause here to let my more jaded geek friends sniff disapprovingly at my failure to put away childish things.  But much like the reaction people have today to viewing Citizen Kane (namely “what’s the big deal”) reading the Lord of the Rings after the movies doesn’t really convey the fact Tolkien practically cast the mold for the fantasy genre.  It was like a writer had taken all of the things I loved about Dungeons and Dragons and created archetypes not just of the classes and characters, but of what a fantasy plot should be. Like Citizen Kane is responsible for so much of what modern film has become, so too in my mind Tolkien’s work was so rich and realized as to be the fantasy work every fantasy work tried to be. I devoured The Silmarillion (which is like reading the entire bible, except more slowly paced), the Book of Lost Tales, and even the really obscure works like the “J.R.R. Tolkien guide to writing lyrics about bathing and the summer barley harvest”. I couldn’t believe someone had defined a world and history so thoroughly.

Oh, given my Dungeons and Dragon’s love I tried to read other fantasy.  But every story had Elves (but these aren’t Tolkien’s elves!) and Dwarves (but these are different than Tolkien’s) and magic rings (but totally different than Tolkien’s!) and there came a point where after around age 20 or so I stopped reading new fantasy and started just re-reading Lord of the Rings every couple of years.

To me, fantasy had been done to the best it was going to be done. The only Fantasy I read in the past few decades was Harry Potter, and I still compared it to Tolkien at every turn.*

Now, granted forming an opinion like that is about as well founded as the religion of Cheeto Christ of Latter Day Saints. It’s not like Neuromancer or the Foundation novels or Ringworld stopped me from consuming copious amounts of bad sci-fi on my way to the good stuff.  Fantasy writing however seemed to have a lot of the same tropes, and I just couldn’t be bothered to find the stories that didn’t. It isn’t so much that the fantasy genre sucks, I think it’s more that I formed the opinion that the genre was living in the shadow of a magnum opus to which all would be compared.

So I considered the fantasy genre somewhat sucky and dead to me.

Until I stumbled across a simple word: Hodor.

Paul (of Paul and Storm) was wearing a shirt with the word on it at the Seattle w00tstock I performed at.


I have no idea why in the above photo Storm looks like a 19 year old version of himself and Paul looks like a young George R. R. Martin.

Anyways, I asked Paul what the word meant and he explained it was from a fantasy series called A Song of Ice and Fire.  I told him my opinion of fantasy and he informed me I was stupid.  This was also about the time the buzz on Game of Thrones** was hitting a fever pitch because of the HBO adaptation.  Paul suggested that he would be highly surprised if I read it and didn’t like it.  A couple weeks later I picked up a copy on my kindle app for iPad.

Over the next eight weeks I had my misconceptions about the fantasy genre completely rebooted as I devoured every book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. For the first time in 20 years I had rediscovered a fiction genre. Not long after I finished the Song of Ice and Fire series to date, I started Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.  Much like George R. R. Martin had taken the Tolkien out of his fantasy series with the lack of magic, adept application of incestuous sex and long term breastfeeding, so had Sanderson with his concept of Allomancy. The Mistborn Trilogy was just as fun to read and as interesting to me.

So I told you all that story so I could tell you this one.

Recently on Twitter I asked for people to recommend their favorite fantasy series so that I could continue rediscovering the genre.  The response was overwhelming and people asked me if I wouldn’t mind blogging the results so as to share which ones I chose to pursue. Here’s the reading list in order I narrowed things down too, note I have not read them yet:

1. Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles

Young George R. R. Martin (Paul) recommended this straight out of the gate, along with many of my followers.  Reading Mr. Rothfuss’s blog leads me to believe he’s just the kind of author I like, meaning the only thing I would rather do than read his books is buy him a beer.  Especially for his goodreads review of Alloy of Law, a side novel from the Mistborn universe. I can’t wait to start this series, it came so highly recommended.

2. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

I got this one quite a bit too.  Apparently it’s one of those universes that managed to outlive its author since Robert Jordan died before its completion. This one intrigues me because amongst Fantasy aficionados there’s tons of debate about the merits of individual chapters of the story but almost no disagreement that it’s a worthy investment. I normally abhor universes that continue past their author’s death by other writers.  But I make two exceptions: situations where the author opened up the universe prior to their death for other authors, or situations where the author authorized expansion after their death and left specific guidance.  The latter appears to have happened here and since the author is Brandon Sanderson I’m kool moe dee with that.

3. The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

The tell tale warning of this series was simply how much content has been written by the author in a mere 4 years (8 books) but then I came around to my chief complaint about George “Trenchers of Bread” R. R. Martin writing too slow and decided I was, in the words of Young George R. R. Martin “Stupid.” This series combines several elements that intrigue me: a military-esque mindset describing conflict, political intrigue, and a well defined universe.

So those were the top three although there were many more I plan to explore.

For now at least, there’s a genre I can rediscover and luckily most of the stuff is written so I don’t have to wait for the next chapter.

*I’m looking at YOU, George R. R. Martin*.


Side note:

Books that I love that somewhat fit the borderline of fantasy:

A Canticle for Leibowitz

The Dark Tower (books 1-5)***

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz


*Joseph Scrimshaw nails the very essence of the pollution of Tolkien with a Harry Potter joke with Young George R. R. Martin and Storm.

**Look let’s get something fucking straight.  Game of Thrones is a book in the series Song of Ice and Fire. I hate that HBO is marketing the entire thing under “Game of Thrones" because people get confused when looking for the follow-on books.  It’s like the opposite of the Jethro Tull problem, where Jethro Tull *is* the band but people think it’s the lead singer.

***SPOILER Stephen King wrote himself into The Dark Tower series in books 6 and 7.  It’s the worst most idiotic author hubris I have seen since George Lucas wrote his fever dream fantasy about a space Stepin Fetchit being the key reason the Galactic Empire was formed.


  1. Virtuous Lumox says:

    I would like to see you write a blog much like this but aimed at science fiction. Specifically, I want to read your thoughts on Dune and the expanded Dune novels written by Herbert’s son in relation to the larger science fiction genre.

    Growing up I hated reading. But my father had multiple editions (even an Elvish edition) of everything Tolkien and Herbert wrote, but I never read them. Beyond that I was first introduced to the world Tolkien created with the movies. But after seeing each movie multiple times in a short period I had no interest in reading them. Dune however, intrigued me once I went to college and found the joy of reading. Having OCD I was compelled to begin my Dune adventure with the first of the prequel novels (chronological order), House Atreides (the Machine trilogy hadn’t been written yet). I instantly loved it and consumed the following House books in rapid succession.

    Then university hit and reading for enjoyment ceased. Skip a few years and now I have time for reading again and the Machine trilogy is a thing. So I pick it up (Audible now), and read (listen) to each novel multiple times because the world is so deep and compelling. I return to the House trilogy on my way to Dune proper. Then I finally, after three decades of wondering why my father held the series in such high regard, begin the original Dune novel. My heart was crushed. I could not come to terms with the inconsistencies between Herbert and Herbert Jr.’s Dune. The writing, tone, pacing, characters, everything felt wrong. I had become accustomed to, and greatly enjoyed, Herbert Jr.’s style of writing. Dune proper felt like an alternate universe. But I continue, regardless of my feelings, because I know there are two new books written by Herbert Jr. that complete the original series. I must read them because Herbert Jr. is my preferred Herbert. But my OCD dictates that I must finish the original series first. I can’t possibly read them out-of-order.

    I’m about to finish Children of Dune and I’m finally coming to terms with the differences in authorship.

    My journey will end someday and I have no other exposure to science fiction beyond movies, games, and game-related novels (Halo, Mass Effect). I need direction.

    Lastly, I want to comment on Tolkien and Martin. I tried to read (listen) The Lord of the Rings and couldn’t get past the hobbits singing in the forest. It bored me to tears. So I picked up A Game of Thrones on a whim. I had to know what all the hype was about. I don’t have cable, and therefor no HBO, so I was clueless to what it was all about. Wow! One of the best novels I have ever read. Politics and intrigue to rival the Dune series. Having played Skyrim and Dragon Age I could visualize the world effortlessly. I cannot wait to continue the series, but I must finish Dune first.

  2. Dave Pfister says:

    Stepto, if you’re looking for other good suggestions I have to mention everything by Joe Abercrombie… came up on Felicia Day’s suggestion list and everything I’ve read of his has been absolutely top-notch, and again a really unique ‘verse in the genre; closest comparison would be something like Glen Cook’s Black Company series (another great read)

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