Weighing In on the Impossibility of Lists

Part I

TIME Magazine has posted a list of the “100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time,” as determined by a panel of fantasy authors including N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Sabaa Tahir, Tomi Adeyemi, Diana Gabaldon, George R.R. Martin, Cassandra Clare, and Marlon James. In the world of geek social media, this list — as might be expected for any list claiming to name the “best fantasy books of all time” — has drawn a good bit of criticism.

Some have accused the list of “recency bias,” of ignoring older titles by such authors as Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, and Gene Wolfe in favor of recent works that, they argue, simply haven’t been around long enough to be considered “best of all time.” Since one of the markers for consideration is influence, this argument makes sense. But if we’re going on quality alone, an excellent book should have a shot at inclusion regardless of when it was published. Recent books on a list like this serve a clear purpose: to demonstrate how the genre has evolved, as well as where it might be headed. My issue isn’t so much with the inclusion of recent books as with the choice of which recent books to include — but more on that later.

Others have looked askance at the decision to include multiple works by the same authors, while other important and deserving names have been pushed off the list altogether. This I agree with. I would never be so foolish as to suggest Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings shouldn’t be on a Best Fantasy of All Time list; on influence alone, if nothing else, its inclusion is indisputable. But why a spot for each book in the series, when Tolkien himself regarded it as a single narrative entity? It should be given a single spot, rather than three. Likewise, LeGuin’s Earthsea and Jemisin’s Broken Earth should be honored as series, not as individual books. This would leave room for at least a few other deserving titles.

Then we have the most common and inevitable complaint about lists of this kind: “Where are my favorites?” Some have protested the omission of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive; others decry the absence of Erikson’s Malazan; still others look in vain for an entry from Cook’s The Black Company; and so forth, and so on. Here, I admit, lies my own greatest personal dissatisfaction with the list. It may have “recency bias” in favor of works from a time when the genre’s authors and characters are not so overwhelmingly white and male, but where is Robin Hobb? Where are Kate Elliott, Barbara Hambly, Juliet Marillier, Martha Wells, Patricia McKillip, and Lois McMaster Bujold? Where are Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and Spinning Silver, one a Hugo winner and the other a highly regarded nominee? The superb Octavia Butler may be regarded as more of a science fiction writer than a fantasy writer, but if Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight belongs on this list, why not Kindred or Wild Seed? I can’t agree with those who sneer at the inclusion of YA titles on the list, but even in YA, what’s good (e.g. Ifueko’s Raybearer, Ireland’s Dread Nation/ Deathless Divide, Soria’s Iron Cast, Croggon’s The Books of Pellinor) seem to have been ignored in favor of what’s popular.

And therein lies a problem that can’t be escaped: the impossibility of gathering a panel of experts who would be familiar with everything in the genre they’re trying to determine the best of. It hasn’t escaped the attention of the list’s critics that works in translation are almost entirely absent from the list; moreover, particularly where the recent books are concerned, almost every work included is by an American author. Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens still stands out in my mind as one of the finest works of historical fantasy I’ve ever read, but it’s virtually unknown in this country. Moreover, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that none of the panelists are familiar with Juliet Marillier’s work. Thus “best” tends to mean “best known,” and I’m not sure what might be done to change that.

Yet while all such lists are flawed, most of them manage to get at least a few choices right. Here are just some of the works I was happy to see included:

The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster) — While I’d normally resist a children’s fantasy book as heavily male-centric as this one, this one is just too darn delightful for me to hold that against it.

The Last Unicorn (Peter S. Beagle) — This book contains some of the most stunning yet simple prose I’ve ever read.

Watership Down (Richard Adams) — I’ve written previously about this one.

The Bloody Chamber (Angela Carter) — Here’s one of the most enjoyably feminist items on the entire list; these short stories helped cement my taste for fairy-tale retellings.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman) — This is one of the few contemporary-set fantasies I genuinely enjoy.

Spindle’s End (Robin McKinley) — This lovely retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” one of my most disliked fairy tales, too often gets ignored in favor of Beauty, The Blue Sword, and The Hero and the Crown. It’s nice to see it recognized as it deserves.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor) — This one knocked me breathless when I first read it, and remains, along with Butler’s Kindred, one of the most disturbing-in-a-good-way books I’ve ever read.

Circe (Madeline Miller) — I fell in love with the writing and characterization of this one within the first twenty-five pages.

Empire of Sand (Tasha Suri) and Gods of Jade and Shadow (Silvia Moreno-Garcia) — As recent as they may be, these two works do something all too rare in the fantasy genre: they get the romance right.

Coming Next: Building My Own List.


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