On Fantasy

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…

Just kidding, it was only twenty years and three thousand miles away. Hang on…that’s a suspiciously long way from my current location in the space-time continuum. Let’s try this again.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a young girl named Amira Makansi was taught to read novels by reading The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Her mother read aloud to her and her sister every night, spinning tales of whispering forests, adventuring dwarves, mysterious wizards, and deadly dragons. From goblins to orcs to gollums to elves, the young girl fell in love with this magical realm and by the end of the battle of the Five Armies, she wanted more.

Lord of the Rings Tryptich by Marko Manev

So her mother kept reading. They quickly moved on to The Fellowship Of The Ring. She read to the girl and her sister every night without fail, as the hobbits and their companions wandered through bogs and taverns, marshes and mines, over hill and under stone, battling Nazgul, cave trolls, and Uruk-Hai, making friends with ponies, free men, elves, and large talking trees.

Fantasy was how a young Amira Makansi, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, learned to read. Fantasy was how I learned to LOVE to read.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found a fantasy novel that has captured my imagination as vividly as J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic tale of good vs. evil. I think in some ways, I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing that high. The first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, is still on my top ten favorite books of all time.


I fell in love with Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and then graduated to R. A. Salvatore’s archetypal antihero Drizzt Do’Urden. I loved almost equally Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, although C.S. Lewis’ Narnia never enchanted me the same way it did others. It almost goes without saying that Harry Potter was my bread and butter throughout much of my own coming-of-age story – Harry was the same age as I was, and we went through our teenage years together. In more recent times, I think the closest I’ve come to that sense of epic, fantastical drama has been Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which redefined for me what one could do with the idea of magic. Both Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss have tried, though neither has quite succeeded, to do for me what The Lord Of The Rings did so long ago.

Science fiction is a close parallel, so much so that the two genres are often lumped together. Both involve immense amounts of speculation and world-building, creating worlds future and past, or at the crossroads where other worlds meet our own. Dystopian fiction fits into that category – one must extrapolate how our world could end up like the one described in the future. Same with urban fantasy, where we are required to imagine how magic or special abilities could be hidden from sight for most while others run in dark underground worlds filled with shadowy demons and strange new forms of magic.

But none of these have the same peculiar, magical appeal of high fantasy, which spirits us away to foreign lands with rich foods and strong mead and enchanted swords and dangerous evils lurking behind every rock for the valiant adventurer to defeat.

As George R. R. Martin writes, “There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.” That peculiar call of the wild is true of historical fiction, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. We are drawn back into the magic of a simpler time, where we lived closer to nature and died more honestly.

Game of Thrones Targaryan

What is it about fantasy that calls to us and haunts us, that drives us to escape in it and wish for it?

What are your favorite fantasy books? I’m eager for recommendations. What will sing to me the same way J. R. R. Tolkien did? What hole will I fall into and never want to return from?

6 thoughts on “On Fantasy

  1. I love high fantasy! I’d recommend the following series:

    Acacia by David Anthony Durham. It’s my all-time favorite fantasy trilogy. I think it works so well because Durham also writes historical fiction, so the world he creates (and slowly reveals) is just as interesting and complex as the characters.

    The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. The series has two books so far, and the world is absolutely fascinating. Sanderson is so good at huge-scale worldbuilding while still making you care about his characters (similar to Durham, but in a different way).

    Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson: I’ve never seen a trilogy come together so well. Every question is answered at the right time, and until then I was entranced by the magic system, the characters, and the social structure of the world.

    The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley: This series is a bit darker than the others, but I love the concept of the kettrals (giant birds carrying teams of 5 people who police the world).

    1. Great recommendations! I have never heard of Durham, so that will go on my Goodreads to-read. And I have heard many recommendations of Sanderson, but haven’t had a chance to dive in yet. I was not the biggest fan of Rothfuss and I often hear Sanderson and Rothfuss mentioned in the same breath, so I admit to having been a little biased. And the kettrals sound fascinating! I enjoy my fiction a bit on the darker side so I will check Staveley out as well. Thank you. All added to Goodreads 🙂

      Hope you’ve been well, Jamey!

  2. Oh, Amira. Would it surprise you that you and I have had the very same favorite books. The only thing I would add would be Robert Heinlein to scifi and Michael Moorcock’s Elric sagas.

    I could live in those worlds for days.

    1. Eric, thanks so much for your recommendations – I haven’t read much Heinlein (only Stranger In A Strange Land, and that was years ago), and I have never even heard of Michael Moorcock, so I will have to check those books out. Thank you very much my friend. And no, it does not surprise me in the slightest…I think it perfectly natural that we should have similar tastes in books and worlds

  3. I had a similar apprenticeship with The Hobbit and then LOTR. For years, I’d read LOTR at least five times a year, and it became a great comfort blanket whenever I was going through periods of feeling down.

    These days, I have to admit, I struggle a bit with LOTR’s language and characters, but I still love going back to the first book, Fellowship, because that was always my favourite part of the story – the intial journey by the Nine.

    1. I agree, the first one is by far the best. The Two Towers was amazing when it was Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, but the adventures of Sam and Frodo bored me near to tears, until Sheilob showed up and then I was terrified. And Return of the King was a great book, but I was always sad that the story was ending, which made me loath to go back to it.

      The book(s) can, these days, feel a bit anachronistic, I agree with you there. But the magic is still there, palpable, whenever I turn the pages.

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