Fantasy Pet Peeves

The fantasy section of the bookstore is such a wasteland of derivative, unimaginative, indulgent storytelling. And I say that as someone whose house is full of fantasy volumes, and who spends many hours every week working on fantasy stories. It’s such a rich tradition, but holy Merry Brandybuck, it can be tough to find true inspiration and enchantment amidst so much disposable and recycled material.

I laughed and cheered all the way through this hilarious list of fantasy-lit pet peeves, even as I checked to see how many lazy conventions I’d perpetuated in my own work. If you were to eliminate the books guilty of these cliches, the Fantasy Department of most bookstores would become the Fantasy Shelf.

What are your fantasy-literature pet peeves?


By request, here are a few fantasy authors whose work I always find worthwhile. It’s not a comprehensive list, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a great place to start.

  • Tolkien, of course.
  • C.S. Lewis.
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Patricia McKillip
  • Mervyn Peake
  • Guy Gavriel Kay
  • Robin McKinley
  • Michael Ende (especially “Momo”)
  • Jane Yolen
  • Frank Herbert (His books usually qualify as science fiction, which is a different thing to me than “fantasy.” But Herbert’s works seem more like fantasy than sci-fi to me, because he seems much more interested in myth than technology.)

I’d rate Richard Adams’ Watership Down second only to The Lord of the Rings in my list of fantasy favorites. And Walter Wangerin’s The Book of the Dun Cow is a masterpiece.

I’ve recently discovered Gina Oschner (People I Wanted to Be, The Necessary Grace to Fall), who sometimes writes short stories of magical realism, and I’m deeply moved and impressed. Some would add Stephen R. Donaldson, but I’ve struggled with his books and I have mixed feelings about them.

Anne could add several more names to this list, as she reads fantasy voraciously. I’ll ask her.

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  • I’ve rarely met someone who values Watership Down as much as I do, so this was nice. But then you go and diss Donaldson? LOL I agree with awalter‚Äîthe Land and Narnia are equally well-drawn and captivating.


  • scandalon

    Oh boy, my wish list is growing quickly. Thanks for the list Jeff, and everyone else too.

    My wife and I love The Book of the Dun Cow. It became a symbol for our budding relationship and remains quite precious to us. I picked up the sequel and felt a bit betrayed by the sad direction of the story. It was quite depressing!

  • tctruffin

    HAH! Ok, that’s a great list of no-nos. GREAT. In fact, without much tinkering, it could probably be turned into a fantastic, general list of things to avoid. Especially 6-10, 13-17, and 20.

    Now, I’m picturing the list of offenses committed by Christian novels. It grows! It growses, it does!

    I am thinking about Herbert being more fantasy than sci-fi. I think you’ve got a point with the Dune series. The only techie thing he spends much time explaining is the stillsuit, and that’s something made by a non-techie race. Of course, he also violates 4,5,17, and 20 on a regular basis. Or does he and Tolkien get grandfathered in since when they did those things they weren’t cliche?

  • ruthanderson

    I love Robin McKinley and Patricia McKillip! I just wish they’d write MORE.

  • There are few fantasy authors I rate as highly as Stephen R. Donaldson, and his Land and Narnia are the worlds I most wish I could visit… Sigh. (BTW, Donaldson will be at 3rd Place in November.)

  • malcgeddes

    How about george macdonald, called the father of modern fantasy. His fantasy works lilith, phantastes and at the back of the north wind are still mind blowing and truly brilliant. There’s a reason lewis called him his master

  • firestoneiv

    Gene Wolfe should top your list. He should top every list, for that matter.

  • That list is genius.

    To your list, I’d add Dave Duncan, Robin Hobb, and George RR Martin. All of them are highly worth reading.

    I couldn’t get through Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Foul’s Bane.

    Tad Williams came highly recommended by Amazon reviewers, but his Memory Sorrow & Thorn series contained just about all of those pet peeves, as did David Eddings’s beloved Belgariad.

  • Uh-oh, Jeffrey, I think your forthcoming novel violates Rule #3: “..characters have names of four syllables or more.”

    I’ll force myself to read it anyway ;-)

  • scandalon

    I know you’ve mentioned worthy fantasy authors on your blog many times, but how about putting together a comprehensive list for those of us on the lookout?