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More systems, please (fantasy novel recommendation request)
December 23, 2010 3:34 PM   Subscribe

Recommend me a fantasy novel (that matches some particular tastes)

If I had to pick a single desert island book, it'd be the first edition AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. I read it obsessively over and over again as a kid, and every time I dip into it as an adult, I find it fascinating again.

On the other hand, I've gotten very little out of reading fantasy novels in the past, mostly because I find wish-fulfillment protagonists a massive turn-off. Because of coming to the genre from RPG sourcebooks, I also really dislike it when a rabbit is pulled out of a hat in the middle of a fight, because it makes me feel like all the time I've spent thinking through the systems (a huge part of the pleasure for me) has been wasted.

So! In short:

I'm not too interested in: good writing, tightly-written plot or genre subversion. These are all a bonus, and I don't want to read Harry Potter fanfic or anything, but most of my reading is already lit fiction, and this isn't about scratching that itch.

I'm interested in: reading for twenty pages about the culture and economy of a fantasy place, and then imagining that I'm a person of medium importance there - a bureaucrat, an apprentice wizard, a younger son of a noble. Then reading twenty pages about somewhere else, and doing it again.

I'm super interested in: reading for twenty pages about the history, advancement, powers and limitations of a particular spell. Imagining casting it. Imagining teaching it to a below-average student. Not having this information contradicted later in the novel.

Sorry for snowflaking so - I thought that if anyone could help, it'd be here. Thanks everyone!
posted by piato to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I suppose there must be some works of fantasy that would exemplify your wishes, but I can't think of any. I think the problem may be that for the writer, doing such as you ask means to sacrifice story for background, in a way. If you want the author to spend a load of time setting up a world, then shifting to another world in twenty pages and building that one up, and then do it again... where is the story in that? It may have no real time in which to develop before the shift to a new world comes. However, as I say, there might be novels that do that and I'll be interested in others' answers.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 3:40 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


Brandon Sanderson's novels seem to fit the bill. They have well-designed magical systems that have an internal structure and consistency. You could start with Elantris or Warbreaker which are both stand alone books, but I really love the Mistborn trilogy. I think the Mistborn trilogy mostly fits your criteria because the magic is internally consistent and it subverts the genre somewhat, plus it shows you the lives of some people who are lower on the totem pole.
posted by bove at 3:42 PM on December 23, 2010


You've probably tried the Gormenghast trilogy already. It lacks monsters, but is chock full of the world-building you're looking for.
posted by ErikaB at 3:51 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm super interested in: reading for twenty pages about the history, advancement, powers and limitations of a particular spell. Imagining casting it. Imagining teaching it to a below-average student. Not having this information contradicted later in the novel.

That last sentence suggests you have specific complaint with specific novels-- if you named those, maybe we'd be able to narrow down what will work for you?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:51 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


bove's suggestion of Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn was the first thing that came to my mind also. You would probably also really enjoy Daniel Abraham's recent series The Long Price Quartet.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:52 PM on December 23, 2010


How do you feel about the Dragonlance novels? (I'm guessing you already know about them, seeing as you played AD&D back in the day. But if you haven't already run across them, they're worth a try.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:54 PM on December 23, 2010


It's not planted in the fantasy genre, per se, but Invisible cities by Italo Calvino is pretty much exactly this.

I'm sorry to say, what you're asking for is basically another D&D handbook, and they just don't exist in fantasy novels, or any novels. It really sounds like what you're describing is not a novel by any conventional definition.

You might possible enjoy - if you can find it - Out of this world - an encyclopaedia ofthe fantastic by Michael Page and Robert Ingpen. It's kind of like a d&d handbook but for real mythology, and the illustrations by Ingpen are incredible.
posted by smoke at 4:05 PM on December 23, 2010


The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.
posted by Max Power at 4:10 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe.

This is a great suggestion, unless an unreliable narrator would be as off-putting as you find lack of verisimilitude/internal inconsistencies.
posted by pullayup at 4:16 PM on December 23, 2010


The Book of the New Sun is great, but exactly what you say you're not too interested in.

China Mieville is an RPG-guy, and his Bas-Lag books (Perdido Street Station, Iron Council, and The Scar) really excel at world-building and cool monsters. (I believe he's working on a Bas-Lag RPG, so there's that, too...)
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 4:18 PM on December 23, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can't think of any novels that really fit that bill- to be sure, there's novels that do a lot of exposition bits, but they tend not to be setting heavy throughout the whole thing AND be entertaining. You might be best off either a) grabbing rpg setting material (since, that's what your preference is saying) or b) looking up fan wikis OF novels.

For instance, there's a lot of material I don't find interesting as stories (Star Wars Expanded Universe stuff), but reading stuff like Wookiepedia fulfills my love of world-building. Just about any major fantasy series will probably have obsessive fans who have built something equivalent - and it doesn't cost you anything to look.
posted by yeloson at 4:20 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Empire of the Petal Throne novels by linguistic anthropologist M. A. R. Barker leap to mind: Man of Gold, Flamesong, Prince of Skulls, Lords of Tsamra, and A Death of Kings. Empire of the Petal Throne was originally published as an RPG by TSR in 1975, using more or less the original D&D rules, and you can really imagine the appeal Barker's world had to the author of the DMG1: it's overly detailed in all respects, very academic, and not terribly concerned with good/energetic story-telling.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:23 PM on December 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


The Amber series, (first book: Nine Princes In Amber). by Roger Zelazney.

I started to describe why it would appeal to the qualities you seek, but that started to become a book in itself, so I'll just say that the first book is mediocre (but its light reading and over quickly), and after that, it starts getting very good.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:26 PM on December 23, 2010


ok fine how about the EarthSea trilogy then, by U.K. Le Guin? Very much into the more magical aspects, though I haven't read it in over 20 years.
posted by Max Power at 4:27 PM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


And for what it's worth, about 15 years ago there was an Amber RPG published, based on the books. A big tome that, very much like the AD&D DMguide, I found worth reading in and of itself, even though I know I was never going to get a chance to play a game with it.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:29 PM on December 23, 2010


Wow - a fantastic response, thanks everybody!

Max Power: I've read and enjoyed The Book Of The New Sun hugely. It's not exactly what I was looking for here - a bit more focused on Severain than the sort of panaroma I'm hunting for - but it did work for me.

Harlequin - I read Nine Princes in Amber when I was a bit younger, and adored it, but I think I find that kind of roguish-charmer-who's-secretly-the-best-at-everything narrator a bit hard to get into now I'm a bit older. I haven't read the other books in the series, and you say they change radically - does this stop being A Thing with them?
posted by piato at 4:52 PM on December 23, 2010


The first amber series is six books (from memory), and they just keep getting better, but all are 1st person from the same character. The second series (Different narrator, not as accomplished as Corwin, and not as royal) didn't appeal to me as much, but I can't say if they're objectively worse, or if their change in style towards fantasy and away from scifi took them out of the the sweet spot that I liked.

But you know what, perhaps the book you're looking for is actually the RPG manual. It's out of print, but I see it on ebay for $75ish. Amber Diceless Role Playing System.
posted by -harlequin- at 4:59 PM on December 23, 2010


(I've also read Earthsea! So I guess I've read more than I thought. But all three of these books have lead characters that are pretty major parts of their identities as novels, and that's sort of what I'm groping for an alternative from here)
posted by piato at 4:59 PM on December 23, 2010


China Mielville is kinda a fascinating suggestion to me, because I imagined him as basically the exact opposite of this, but I've never actually read any.

Stuff I'm really keen to check out now:
Mistborn, Invisible Cities, Petal Throne, Amber RPG sourcebook - thanks everyone! Busy christmas shopping.research ahead.
posted by piato at 5:04 PM on December 23, 2010


That last sentence suggests you have specific complaint with specific novels-- if you named those, maybe we'd be able to narrow down what will work for you?

I'm really thinking here of stuff like 'Avatar', where the science says one thing, and then someone with 'real heart' and 'guts' and 'determination' overcomes anyway. When I was 13 and getting anything with a sword on the cover out of the library, I ran across it a lot - some terrible bad thing would annihilate an entire army and then be defeated by a heroic peasant child with a pitchfork.
posted by piato at 5:08 PM on December 23, 2010


I'm not sure if this is exactly what you're looking for, but the first thing that came to my mind was Her Majesty's Wizard by Christopher Stasheff. It's a bit old, but good. I like the whole series actually.
posted by patheral at 5:09 PM on December 23, 2010


No Silmarillion yet? Well, there you go. What turns so many people off it (and Tolkien in general) is the extensive world-building. While much of it is relegated to the appendices in LOTR, but history is front and center in the Silmarillion, more so than narrative. or so I remember it--it's been about 15 years since I last read it
posted by smirkette at 5:23 PM on December 23, 2010 [4 favorites]


A mildly off-the-wall suggestion, perhaps, but Isuna Hasekura's "Spice and Wolf" novels (Japanese, the first one or two have been translated into English) are about a spice trader and a nubile wolf girl in a fantasy world... but, more than anything, about the economic workings of a fantasy world. It's a low-magic world, so if you're specifically interested in the mechanics of spellcasting it doesn't have a lot to offer, but for some reason I think it might be up your alley.
posted by Jeanne at 5:25 PM on December 23, 2010


Hmm, funnily enough, the one "thing" I liked most about the Amber series was that it starts out with this immortal prince guy with all these powers, and as the series goes on, bigger things start to unfold and the reader discovers the protagonist knows a whole lot less about everything than he really should, and that because he's always been powerful and privedged, he's never really ever had to grow up, or genuinely understand things.

The character becomes progressively less powerful as the books go on (well actually, the world becomes progressively more complex, progressively revealing his shortcomings and shrinking him in comparison). It's the opposite of the usual dynamic where the hero gains power/prestige/whatever. But it's not the unplanned flailing of "Oh shit - superman is invincible and it turns out that we need to give him a weakness so we can have dramatic tension!".
posted by -harlequin- at 5:30 PM on December 23, 2010 [2 favorites]


Fourthing Mistborn. Sanderson is great at creating consistent magic systems and exploring their implications.
posted by dfan at 5:35 PM on December 23, 2010


seconding The Silmarillion.

I also suggest Dusk, and its sequel Dawn.
posted by zombieApoc at 5:40 PM on December 23, 2010


I'm super interested in: reading for twenty pages about the history, advancement, powers and limitations of a particular spell. Imagining casting it. Imagining teaching it to a below-average student. Not having this information contradicted later in the novel.

I think you might like the Wheel of Time series. It's very rich in world history/culture and has an elaborately thought-out and thoroughly described system of magic. There are long blog posts dedicated to "Costume in the WoT" and books about its nations' cultures.

That said, the main focuses is on character and plot. The rich detail is great, but secondary.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 5:51 PM on December 23, 2010


Lots of people have mentioned Sanderson, but no one has mentioned Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time yet (Sanderson is finishing the series after Jordan's passing).

The biggest complaint most people have with the series is how "slow" it is, but really it's just detailed. I've always really liked they way Jordan writes the 3rd person perspective, and after the first few books he starts writing chapters from the perspectives of people other than the main characters, so you get more information about their lives. Characters from different cities and classes all have their own sayings/traditions/outlooks/etc. It's not laid out like a source book, but the detail comes out throughout the stories.

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by a "wish-fulfillment" protagonist, but I don't think the protagonist in WoT is one. The main characters do have luck on their side, but 1) it's explained and 2) it can be bad luck, not just good.

There's not a lot of "rabbit out of the hat," and what there is usually winds up being explained (eventually).

If you want something more like a source book, you could try The world of Robert Jordan's the Wheel of Time". And if you want an actual source book, there's the out of print Wheel of Time Roleplaying Game (d20 3.0)

Finally, in the same vein as the last two suggestions, there's the wonderful online source The Encyclopaedia WoT which, in addition to chapter summaries (spoilers), has geography, Organizations and societies, and all creatures, big and small.
posted by chndrcks at 6:01 PM on December 23, 2010


Do not read Wheel of Time - it is literally the opposite of what you are looking for; the main protagonist begins as a messianic stableboy unaware of his tremendous powers...
posted by smoke at 6:33 PM on December 23, 2010


Nthing Brandon Sanderson. He's an excellent world-builder and his magic systems are very well thought out.
posted by tdismukes at 6:50 PM on December 23, 2010


I'd suggest Shogun, by James Clavell. It covers many of the things you are looking for (without the monsters, spells and wizards) in seventeenth century Japan. The rules, culture, economy, politics etc. are all covered in glorious rich detail to bring the world to life. You could quite easily imagine yourself as a person of medium importance living right there.
posted by damian_ at 7:02 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


The first amber series is six books

Five.
posted by mediareport at 7:30 PM on December 23, 2010


Huh. If Shogun is fair game, I call The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:30 PM on December 23, 2010


The Peregrine books by Avram Davidson might interest you.
posted by Malla at 7:51 PM on December 23, 2010


This is sci-fi, not fantasy, but what about Aasimov's Foundations? They're definitely packed with world building, and actually I think some of the cultural type world building does have a fantasy flair.
posted by equivocator at 8:06 PM on December 23, 2010


Do not read Wheel of Time - it is literally the opposite of what you are looking for...

Maybe I don't have the right sense of a wish-fulfillment protagonist, but I respectfully disagree with this. When I think of this kind of protagonist, I think of a Mary Sue type character (and, on googling the expression 'wish-fulfillment protagonists,' the first hit is the wikipedia entry on Mary Sue). The main character isn't nauseatingly perfect. He doesn't live a charmed life. The star of the show is destined to go mad and kill his loved ones. He's made to suffer, and it's not teenage-angsty-No-on-one-understands-me-but-I'll-show-them-when-I-ride-my-magical-unicorn-to-the-moon suffering. It's nothing to eat, no where to sleep, people are trying to kill me, and my friends are scared of me because of what I'll become suffering.

In the interview at the end of the audiobooks, Jordan has this to say:

I wondered what it was really like to be tapped on the shoulder and told "You were born to be the savior of man kind." I didn't think it would be very much like the way it is in many books where somebody pops up and says 'Hi! I was born to be the savior of mankind and here's the prophecy' and everybody says 'Oh! Well! Let's go then!'"

Again, the most common complaints people have with this series sound like the sort of thing the OP is looking for. Crossroads of Twilight was probably the least popular book in the series. Looking at the most popular 1 star review shows the following complaints:
-The main character isn't in the book enough (more evidence that he's not a Mary Sue)
-Too much detail about what clothing is worn in different regions and by different classes
-too much detail about procedure in various organizations

the main protagonist begins as a messianic stableboy unaware of his tremendous powers...

That's true, but I don't think this sufficient for being a wish-fulfillment character. (Since the OP's favorite book is a DMG...) The average attribute for a 3rd ed. adventurer is 12, while a commoner's is 10. People don't play DnD to be the village merchant. And no one would care about the main character of the WoT if he just lived out his life on a farm. The main character is above average, but it's not like he rolled all 18s either. The power costs him (the life he wants, friends, relationships, sanity) more than it helps for much of the series. Except for a few outbusts, he has to learn to control it, and that doesn't happen for a couple books, and even then he doesn't really learn to use it well until book 5 or 6.


Again, I may have misunderstood the OP, but when I saw his list of what he enjoys, it reminded me of most of the lists I've seen of what people hate about WoT.
posted by chndrcks at 8:44 PM on December 23, 2010 [1 favorite]


George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series? It's relatively low-magic thus far (4 novels in) but the world he describes is expansive and thick with detail. Each chapter switches viewpoints -- there are at least 20 different POV characters, and they cover a wide range of places and positions.
posted by emeiji at 9:50 PM on December 23, 2010


Have you considered simply reading sourcebooks for other RPGs?

I love A Song of Ice and Fire, but the magic is so mysterious that I think it might frustrate the OP. The world-building is great, though!
posted by Logic Sheep at 9:57 PM on December 23, 2010


A lot of early fantasy series are exactly like this, so check out pre-hippie fantasy novels. Like the Enchanter series, which I loved as a D&D obsessed kid.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:45 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


the Malazan Book of the Fallen universe was orignally created as an RPG. I'm reading the series now and I often find myself thinking about playing it.
posted by Ness at 3:08 AM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree with a number of the recommendations above, so here's a few that haven't been mentioned yet.

Jack Vance's Dying Earth series was one of the big influences on D&D, to the point that D&D's magic system is sometimes called "Vancian".

Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series was another big D&D influence.

For post-D&D series, I like Garth Nix's Abhorsen Trilogy. The Abhorsen is sort of like a necromancer on the side of good, putting things undead back into death.

Lawrence Watt-Evens also has a few that fit might fit the bill. For light fantasy, his Ethshar series. The world has several different systems of magic, which work differently. The novels are *mostly* independent of each other, with different main characters. I would recommend starting with either The Mis-Enchanted Sword or With a Single Spell. For a little darker, try his Lords of Dus series. The Lure of the Basilisk is the first one there.


posted by fings at 1:10 PM on December 24, 2010


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