Maybe you've already "given up" on fantasy. Maybe your impressions of the wide-ranging genre that is fantasy were set in stone (pun intended) by an early encounter with the bastard son of the current heavyweight champion of the world -- I refer, naturally, to The Hobbit -- and you came away having enjoyed yourself but with the inescapable feeling that fantasy was "for kids". And then, of course, the next summer you read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Case closed, or so you've always thought.

Then again maybe, just maybe, fantasy is a bit of a guilty pleasure, for you, but you've grown tired of the ever-present memes that bog much of the genre forever in cliché: orphan children who just happen to be scions of long-lost royal lines; wizards-of-improbable-power; dwarves'n'elves; goblins; talking animals; dragons. "Ya know," you irritably think, perhaps as you digest the seventh tome in an increasingly dry series, "I'm really only finishing this out of a sense of duty, and then fantasy and me are done."

Of course there are also those whose exposure to the tripe that is almost every "fantasy" feature film ever made has inoculated them permanently against the very idea that "great writing", "superb characterization", "intriguing plot" or other terms of high literary praise could even exist in a sentence alongside "fantasy novel" unless separated by the phrase "does not contain".

Whichever category you are in -- even if you're a fantasy fan -- I hereby present six novels you simply must read to even have a well-rounded opinion on the genre, let alone give up on it! A word of caution, however, before we proceed. These novels were chosen deliberately to attempt to capture as full a range as possible of fantasy "experiences" and sub-genres. I am not saying these are "the best fantasy novels ever", or even that if push came to shove I would personally give each and every one 5 stars out of a possible 5. This isn't my Top 6, nor are these novels all in my personal Top 20. But they are, I believe, representative of what is unmissable about fantasy, the bare minimum of the experiences a reasonably intelligent person would have to have before forming an educated opinion on the subject of fantasy.

Without further ado:

1. The Scar by China Miéville
Why it's on this list:
    Miéville represents what is sometimes referred to as the "New Wave" of fantasy (although in truth there have been several such waves). Characterized by the dark, the brooding, the truly "fantastic" in the sense that none of the usual clichés ever make an appearance, unless unexpectedly. This is the second of Miéville's "Bas Lag" novels, and not only stands on its own, but IMO is the best introduction to this stunningly original, horrifyingly dark and complex writer, and by extension "this sort" of fantasy.

2. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1) by George R. R. Martin
Why it's on this list:
    You can't say you've "read fantasy" -- let alone formed an opinion on the genre -- until you've tried Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire". Prince Niccolo Machiavelli has nothing on the characters in these novels! They scheme and fight and claw each other's eyes out in a feudal world that feels, above all, utterly real. Although at a glance this appears a little like a fantasy retelling of the War of the Roses (a phrase you often see in reviews) it's actually far more complex and interesting than that. This is the first in the series, and I guarantee it will hook you bad.

3. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Why it's on this list:
    Lyrically beautiful, astonishingly poignant, this is matchless fantasy in a totally original setting. I believe it's Kay's best work, but it's also a great introduction to the author's quality oeuvre. Startlingly relevant (considering the time period and themes it portrays) and an antidote to today's cartoon "Clash of Civilizations" political narrative.

4. Assassin's Apprentice (The Farseer Trilogy, Book 1) by Robin Hobb
Why it's on this list:
    Although more "traditional" than most of the other titles on this list, it's the quality of the writing (and the characters) which enables this first book of Hobb's Farseer Trilogy (and the other two!) to qualify as "unmissable". An almost perfect "introduction" book to give to the person in your life who doesn't care for your fantasy habit (if that describes you!)

5. Lord Foul's Bane (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Book 1) by Stephen R. Donaldson
Why it's on this list:
    What's brilliant about this controversial book (and the series that follows it) is how cleverly it corrupts one of of the most long-standing memes in fantasy: the "our world" individual who is transported to another world. A novel which forces you to look at yourself in a new light, if you'll let it. You might not like what you see. The only "danger" with putting this book on this list is that it's been parodied so often it's sometimes hard to see it through the fog of imitations, criticism, and mockery. It's kinda like Lord of the Rings in that way (although not in too many other ways) -- hard to digest but only because of what's served with it.

6. American Gods by Neil Gaiman
Why it's on this list:
    Although this (along with most of Gaiman's other works) has proved to be a polarizing "love or hate" novel, it is unmissable because of its utterly original core conceit: what if the old gods (Greek, Roman, Norse, Pagan etc.) were still with us, much reduced, surviving on scraps, but with their ancient battles still being eternally waged, their ancient story cycles still in operation? It also represents in this list the "action takes place in this world" part of the genre.

So there you have it! Of course, it's impossible to make a list like this and please everyone (or even anyone!) who might have strong opinions on the novels it does (or doesn't) contain, but that's not what I'm trying to achieve here. I spent some time above talking about what I wasn't saying, so here is what I am saying:

Fantasy can be truly excellent, truly exhilarating, truly literature, and here are some of the very good reasons why. Read these books before you give up on fantasy.

Parts of this initially appeared in a list entitled "Six of the Best" that I wrote for Amazon.

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