Sunday, June 21, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (T)

I thought I may have a few T's, but strangely enough it doesn't seem to be that popular a letter for surnames of authors. It may be misleading because arguably the most famous of all fantasy authors has a surname beginning with T, and yes he is here, along with a far more recent and not as well known author.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien - January 3 1892 - September 2 1973. Of course he was going to be here, he was always going to be here. I don't think it's possible in this day and age for me to do a list like that and not include him. Above is my favourite picture of J. R. R. Tolkien. It just seems so perfect. You can really see why he was called The Father of the Hobbits in a shot like that one.

There's not much about his background and life that hasn't been extensively written about that I can add to, although I will say that his life and many of it's key elements played significant parts in the creation of Middle Earth. His early childhood in South Africa, he was bitten by a baboon spider which has been pointed to as having echoes in his fiction, although he said that he had no lasting memory of the incident or any particular animosity towards spiders (could have fooled me. I'm an arachnophobe and the sequences with Shelob in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have played parts in my nightmares). Following the death of his father, the family moved to England, and he grew up in Worcestershire. This setting inspired settings and scenes in his books, especially the Shire and Bag End was in fact the name of an aunt's house.

He managed to survive the First World War, but like many of the participants found himself with memories that he didn't want and could never forget. This experience may have also played a part in his writing. There are those who sought parallels in The Lord of the Rings with the Second World War, but Tolkien said that they were wasting their time looking, because there weren't any. There may be some with his experiences in Word War 1, though.

Another key element in his life and his writing was his occupation. Following the war he became a Professor in English Language, first at the University of Leeds, and then Pembroke College, Oxford. It was here that he became part of the Inklings, and met fellow author and professor C. S. Lewis. The two became great friends, they shared some experience, having both served in WW I, and they were also both keen writers. Tolkien's work influenced his writing. A particular interest was Norse language and legends, and that influence is clear in the creation of the dwarves, their language and even the name of his fictional setting Middle Earth, which recalls the Norse legend of Midgard (what the Gods call Earth).

He didn't just write about Middle Earth. Prior to the publication of The Hobbit (which began life as a story he told to his children, much like Richard Adams and Watership Down) he was better known for a treatment he had done on the Beowulf legend. He also wrote things like The Father Christmas Letters (also to entertain his children),  Farmer Giles of Ham and those that did borrow from his own 'legendaria, Roverandom and Smith of Wootton Major.

He was actually surprised that The Hobbit became popular and probably even more so that Allen and Unwin asked for a sequel. They in turn were probably stunned with what he gave them as the sequel.

The Lord of the Rings became Tolkien's magnum opus, although it was followed up by The Silmarillion (published posthumously) and other works which his son Christopher has cobbled together from his father's work. He never seems to stop 'discovering' fragments, which he then turns into books that sell very well to a ravenous public. As an interesting aside one of author Guy Gavriel Kay's first forays into the world of fiction was working on turning Tolkien's notes into The Silmarillion.

While J. R. R. Tolkien passed away in 1973, his work and contribution to the field of fantasy will never be forgotten, and he laid the building blocks for the genre. He is possibly responsible, more than any other author, for making the genre what it is today.

What? The Hobbit? Surely you've made a mistake! Confession: I actually prefer The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings. If pressed to do a top 10 of my favourite fantasy novels ever, I'd get The Hobbit in there, but couldn't find a spot for the sequel. I don't dislike The Lord of the Rings, and I respect what it did and it's influence on the genre as a whole, but I don't love it.

Why do I like The Hobbit so much? It may be because at the heart of it, it is a caper novel. The whole thing is about a giant jewellery heist. The dwarves employ a hobbit, who they have been led to believe is a highly effective burglar, to help them steal a massive treasure from a dragon. Okay, the treasure did initially belong to them, but they're still stealing it back. There are games within games, too. Gandalf tricks Bilbo into inviting the dwarves into his home, he tricks the dwarves into believing that Bilbo is a burglar. Bilbo cheats in the Riddle Game with Gollum and gets himself a magic ring. He tricks the trolls. Gandalf, the dwarves and Bilbo manage to fool Beorn into letting them into his house. The whole thing is a non stop action ride, with tricks, riddles, games, chases, captures, escapes and a happy ending.

The Hobbit has a whimsical fairy tale feel to it, Tolkien even playfully subtitled it There and Back Again. I'd like to visit the Middle Earth in The Hobbit, the one in The Lord of the Rings, not so much. Maybe Hobbiton for Bilbo's Eleventy First birthday party. I don't think the term had even been coined then, but The Hobbit is a prequel. It contains a number of characters and elements that are very important to The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf, Gollum and the One Ring itself, which was more than just a cool thing that could turn the wearer invisible as it turned out.

I've read it countless times, and I always know that I'm in for a fun adventure every time I open the pages of my battered old copy.

Further and related reading: naturally there's The Lord of the Rings and the never ending stream of bits and pieces of J. R. R. Tolkien's work that his son Christopher seems to keep on uncovering. Things like pre The Hobbit works (Farmer Giles of Ham, Smith of Wootton Major and Roverandom) have been reprinted in recent years. Even some of the more scholarly work like his treatment of Beowulf is available, and there are a lot of biographies and studies of Tolkien and his work. He also left us with enough material for at least 6 enormous films and an entire set on a working sheep farm in New Zealand. Seriously, if you have ANY interest at all in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and/or the films made of them, you HAVE to visit Hobbiton in New Zealand. It is absolutely mind blowing, it's like walking right into the pages of the books.

A lot of Tolkien's influences are pretty clear; the Norse mythology, Beowulf and the Arthurian legends (come on, Gandalf is Merlin with another name). He was also influenced by what were for him, more recent fantasy authors, names like Lord Dunsany and E. R. Eddison.

Since Tolkien plenty of people have been inspired by, and in some cases copy him *cough* Dennis L. McKiernan *cough*. Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara is highly derivative of Tolkien, although after that he became more original from The Elfstones of Shannara onwards. Stephen Donaldson's Tales of Thomas Covenant owes a great debt to Tolkien and is every bit as derivative as Brooks' work. The elves in Raymond Feist's Midkemia series are straight out of central casting in Middle Earth and even Tad Williams pays Tolkien great homage with his Memory, Sorrow and Thorn epic, as well as parts of his Otherland series.

I'd be surprised if many people knew who the man in the picture above was. His name is Ian Tregillis, and he is for me, one of the best minds to emerge in the fantasy field for the last 5 - 10 years.  He's an alumnus of the famous Clarion Workshop, which may be where he first met George R. R. Martin, he's also a member of Mass Effect, the writing group, which also numbers George R. R. Martin among it's members. Unsurprisingly when you read his work, he has a P.h.D in physics. He doesn't get technical, but his work does have the feel of someone who knows their science, despite that it is most definitely fantasy, of the alternate history kind.

He first appeared on the scene in 2010, with Bitter Seeds, the first book of the Milkweed triptych, a series about how differently the Second World War may have been if Germany had access to super soldiers and Britain a conduit to the world of magic.

He followed Milkweed up with Something More Than Night (I haven't read this, although I do want to, I'm just not paying for a hardback copy and I don't think it ever got a paperback release) a rather noir story about fallen angels and the foundations of reality. It got fairly mixed reviews and didn't seem to be all that well received by the public, hence the no mmpb publication.

Earlier this year Ian Tregillis released The Mechanical, the first of the Alchemy Wars series. He's back on the familiar turf of alternate history, although totally different from what he did in Milkweed, and if the first book is any indication, then this series could even top Milkweed for mine, although that will be pretty hard to do.

Like any even half popular author these days Ian Tregillis tweets as @ITregillis and keeps a website at, he is also on Facebook.

The first book in the Milkweed triptych only came out in 2010, and I read it in 2013, but it made such an impact on me that I had to include it. It can't be added as one book, you need all 3, and it's not a trilogy as such. It is a triptych. The word generally refers to a panel painting that is done in 3 parts, so it's odd to call a book that, but with Milkweed it absolutely fits. It is as I said earlier an alternate history where World War Two works out differently because the Germans have developed super soldiers. They can walk through walls, burst into flames, read minds and even divine the future. In reaction and to level the playing the field Great Britain deploy their own secret weapon, a group of blood sorcerers who make deals with the denizens of magic. The 3 books weave in and out of time, and Tregillis brings the story together brilliantly. He also creates a for the most part highly believable alternate reality. What really sets this apart from the pack though is the creation of the character of Gretel, the German foreteller. She's so well described as is the 'gift' that she has been cursed with.  character who will never leave me.

Further and related reading: Ian Tregillis has also published Something More Than Night, and The Mechanical (read The Mechnical, great stuff. Probably the best book I've read this year), and he contributes to George R. R. Martin's pet project the Wildcards shared world books.

If you're looking for alternate history then it's hard to go past Harry Turtledove, who amongst his many projects often plays in the What if WW2? sandbox. Robert Harris' Fatherland also does this very well, imagining a future where Hitler never died in the bunker, Joe Kennedy Sr. became the President of the USA, and the USA did a deal with Germany that saw them gain most of the Soviet Union. Ken Grimwood's Replay goes back to the future, having his main character relive his life over and over from a certain point always trying to change it and creating multiple options in the future, which is something similar to what Ian Tregillis did with Gretel in Milkweed.

I don't think I can find a U, so next week may be the V's.

No comments:

Post a Comment