Editor’s Note: The views of Brandon Draga do not necessarily reflect the views of The Grim Tidings Podcast hosts, Rob Matheny or Philip Overby. Just need to say that shit so you can get pissed off at Brandon if you don’t agree. 🙂
Fandom is kind of a funny thing, isn’t it? One side of it is this wholesome, beautiful thing; people coming together over a shared love of something. There’s a power to it – one need look no farther than the multi-million-dollar spectacle that is San Diego Comic Con to see that power. When people love something, there is a passionate fervor that only grows exponentially as they meet kindred spirits.
The flip-side of this, naturally, is the rivalries, the little fissures brought about by what seems innocuous to the uninitiated.
Batman or Superman?
Nike SB or Vans?
The Ramones or the Sex Pistols?
THAC0 or Scaling AC?
Now naturally everyone knows that Batman always has a contingency plan, Vans Old-Skools are iconic, The Ramones had (marginally) more talent, and nobody wants to use a THAC0 table to figure out if they actually hit that goblin.
Except, well, everybody doesn’t know that, necessarily.
This is where fandoms start to get a bit messy. You see, when someone gets passionate about something, they get passionate about every bit of minutia therein, sometimes to the point of vitriol. Now don’t get me wrong, I have been a live and let live type for as long as I can remember. Some, however, are a bit more… vocal in their protestation or praise. It’s not all that surprising, really. I mean, the word fan did start out as shorthand for fanatic, after all.
As with comics, skateboarding, music, Dungeons and Dragons, and really anything that has a fandom, fantasy fiction is far from immune from this sort of thing. There is no shortage of swathing epic stories, masterfully written by experts in their craft, books that are lauded extensively and, as if by some nebulous Newtonian law, torn to pieces by their detractors. Before I get into the list, I would like to start with the caveat that it is wildly unscientific. My observations are simply those of someone who has repeatedly seen the books listed garner predominantly spirited reactions, in both directions, whenever they are discussed. Further, the opinions below are not necessarily my own, one way or the other. Taste is subjective, and I encourage everyone to approach any other readers’ opinions with a grain of salt.
So, with that out of the way, here are five love-’em-or-hate-’em, polarizing series in fantasy.
1. Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson
This seminal series is considered by many to be the exact point where the decades-long era of Lord of the Rings clones came to an end, ushering in the era of modern fantasy in which we now reside. Heck, spanning from 1990’s
Eye of the World to 2013’s A Memory of Light, one could easily argue that Jordan’s (and eventually Sanderson’s) fourteen-book journey has been the very backbone of modern fantasy, and indeed many do. Conversely, though, many are quick to point out that many of the middle volumes in the series feel like a slough, that many of the characters (particularly female characters) remain painfully unlikable throughout, and that for a series so idolized for helping to bring fantasy into modernity it does little to deviate from the tired “orphan farmboy is destined to save the world” trope of its predecessors. Universally, however, I think we can all agree that the… whatever it was that Billy Zane’s production company released last year to try and retain its film rights was a bigger steaming pile than the ill-fated Legend of the Seeker series. Which naturally brings me to…
2. Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind
I can probably count on one hand the number of fantasy readers I’ve come across that haven’t at least read Wizard’s First Rule. In fact, most would probably be in agreement that the first of Goodkind’s seemingly unending saga is a perfectly serviceable middle-of-the-road book. From 1995’s Stone of Tears onward, however, reactions become progressively more mixed. Many praise the books’ unabashed depictions of dark, mature themes, and the character arc of Richard, their chief protagonist. If nothing else, the series’ longevity (the latest Warheart, was released in 2015) is testament to its loyal fan base. The series’ equally vocal detractors, however, most often argue that each passing book is a progressively more thinly-veiled platform from which Goodkind can bloviate about his staunchly libertarian beliefs.
3. The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss
Alright, I’m going to get this out of the way right now: yes, a huge part of what makes this series contentious is how long fans have been waiting for book three. No, I don’t think this is a valid criticism. That’s a topic for another time however.
It would not surprise me if, at time of writing, at least a dozen PhD dissertations have been written about these books. Rothfuss broke enough molds with
The Name of the Wind that I’m pretty sure he got permanently banned from every tool and die factory in his native Wisconsin as a result. Most often, those who sing KKC’s praises do so by way of lauding the quality of Pat’s prose, which is of a quality and style more frequently seen in bookstores’ “Literary Fiction” shelves than their “Sci-Fi/Fantasy” shelves. All the while, the books remain far more accessible to the average reader than the lit fic to which they are so often compared.
For all the ink spilled placing these books on a pedestal, however, one needn’t look far to see just as much spilled in an attempt to dethrone them. For all the talk of beautiful prose, it is apparently not enough for some to find anything redeemable about Kvothe, often touted as an egotistical Mary-Sue with a penchant for embellishment and eyes for a thoroughly unlikable love interest.
But seriously… get off Pat’s back about book three, especially if you fall in the latter camp.
4. The Legend of Drizz’t by R.A. Salvatore
Kvothe notwithstanding, if you ask one hundred fantasy readers who comes to their mind when you say either “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu”, it’s a safe bet that at least half of them will say Drizz’t Do’urden, the titular dark elf of R.A. Salvatore’s infamous long-running series of Forgotten Realms tie-in novels.
Much like other entries on this list, this series’ longevity is a clear testament to the fact that it is beloved among its fans. For many, the original Icewind Dale Trilogy was their first foray into fantasy fiction, from TSR’s initial release of
The Crystal Shard in 1988 up through present day, where Wizards of the Coast is into its umpteenth printing of the book. This is to say nothing of the fact that Bob has released a new Drizz’t book almost annually. For many, the dual-wielding Drow ranger and his adventures are as comfortable as pulling out your Hallowe’en decorations every year.
For many others, however, said comfort is mitigated by the fact that after nearly three decades the old decorations haven’t held up all that well. Most commonly one finds the argument that the series simply never grew up along with its readers, and that while Drizz’t was a compelling, cool character when one was age 13 to 18, his act and actions are a bit too one-note for anyone who already went through puberty.
5. The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson.
When I first thought of the idea for this piece, this was the first series that popped into my mind. In my experience, when talking about fans of Erikson’s ten-volume epic, to call them “devoted” would be a vast understatement. There is something of a joke among those who frequent Reddit’s /r/Fantasy sub-forum that if someone is looking for recommendations, regardless of their taste in books, Malazan will get suggested.
If we’re being honest, it’s half joke and half statement of fact.
For those who love the series, there is a lot to love about it. Its history is rich, literally millennia deep. Its story is complex, featuring a multitude of characters that exist throughout the time and space of the world, and most fans agree that the story gets better with each book. That is, if you can make it through Gardens of the Moon.
The fact of the matter is, for many the story comes off as disjointed and convoluted; overly complex for the sake of being complex. By the end of the first book one can feel burned out, and lacking any real connection to any of the characters. Like those who played Final Fantasy XIII, many see the argument of “You just need to push through until X, then it starts to get good!” as a detriment, and not worth the time or energy, much less the oftentimes intense fan base.
Ultimately, these aren’t the only contentious fantasy series’ out there, and certainly they won’t be the last to inspire argument from both sides. At the end of the day, it’s not a bad idea to remember that opinions are subjective, and that even in the age when they can so readily be shared, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wanted unless someone asks first. After all, just because we disagree about a part of something doesn’t mean we can’t love the whole of it just the same, right?
Except for THAC0… Seriously, why did it take game designers so long to get rid of that?
Brandon Draga was born in 1986, just outside Toronto, Ontario. His love of all things fantasy began at an early age with games like The Legend of Zelda, Heroquest, and Dungeons and Dragons. This affinity for the arcane and archaic led to his studying history at York University from 2005 to 2011. In late 2012, he began writing a D&D campaign setting that would lay the groundwork for the world of Olhean, the setting for his “Four Kingdoms Saga” novel series, compared by critics to the works of Terry Brooks, Michael J. Sullivan, and R.A. Salvatore. Brandon has also proven that SF/F can be made accessible at any age, writing the lauded picture book “Dragon in the Doghouse”. Brandon still lives just outside Toronto, and when he is not writing enjoys skateboarding, playing guitar, and playing tabletop games.
To find Brandon’s books, check out his Amazon author page here!
The Summerlark Elf is available on Audible as well. You can check it out here.
And Brandon’s in a new anthology called The Dwarves of the World. Swoop in and get that dwarven goodness here. https://bundlerabbit.com/b/dwarves-world
For more Draga in your ears, you can listen to our Keeping it Indie Panel episode of The Grim Tidings Podcast as well!