Whenever I try and write a female character well, I always think of Veriladaine Sarrasi. Daine is a beautifully complex character – full of bravery, stubbornness, darkness and wide-eyed wonder. She’s the perfect guide to the world of Tortall – an interconnected sprawl of gods, monsters and mages that’s never bigger than one girl’s journey and one girl’s heart.
I could have populated this entire list with Terry Pratchett. I’ve never read such casual genius – skipping between horror, hilarity, wry wit and philosophy, often in the same sentence. I read him first as a teenager and was utterly charmed, but it was when I went back as a writer that I really understood his mastery of voice. You’re told as a writer to find a perspective and stick with it, but he treats point-of-view like notes on a keyboard and yet you’re never lost. I’m choosing Small Gods because of what it has to say about belief and humanity, and also because it has an extremely irate tortoise.
When writing a fantasy novel, it’s crucial to pick the right starting point. You want to introduce your readers to this new world you’ve created but you can’t bombard them with too much information at once. You have to give them just enough to keep them hooked but not enough that you scare them away.
Or you could be Steven Erikson, who dumps you in the middle of a civil war full of floating upside mountains, meddling gods, ancient races and eight foot tall sort-of-weredragons. There’s a lot going on, and it’s two books in before you really start understanding what’s going on, but when you do it’s glorious. He marries the highest-concept fantasy with real humanity and character. Also, did I mention the weredragons?
As a contrast to the avalanche of cursed swords and plot that is Steven Erikson’s work, Robin Hobb is all slow unfurling. You grow up with the protagonist and understand the world as he grows to understand it, Each character is not simply introduced but lived with, as perfectly realised as someone you’ve known your entire life. I feel like I could feel my way around Buckkeep with my eyes closed, as if I’m not a reader but a bystander, someone who sat at those feasts and walked those corridors, outside these people’s lives but a part of them as well, like Fitz or Chade, slipping from passage to passage like a ghost… or an assassin.
I was a Neil Gaiman cover band for years. It happens. Writing is a vast collection of different instruments working in tandem – voice, character, plot, world-building, editing – and I learned mine in piecemeal. I began writing with fanfiction, so I could toy with sentence structure and character development without taking on the responsibility of creating the kind of intricate, beautiful, mechanically-perfect world that I saw in books every day. I wrote in Gaiman’s voice for years until I found my own (I definitely owe him a pint) and he was inspiring on two completely opposing levels. On one, he clearly and perfectly explained where his ideas came from for his stories, which told me as a novice writer that at least in a very faraway sense we were dealing with the same process.
On the other, he wrote Sandman when he was twenty-eight. It’s insane and ambitious and the most deft multiverse I’ve ever experienced, and it’s still so human at the end of it all. Everyone needs a mountain, and writing something like Sandman is mine.
… is my favourite book. I realise that you’re supposed to have more than one. You’re supposed to theatrically throw up your hands and say ‘oh I couldn’t possibly choose!’ Well I have. It’s the Goneaway World by Nick Harkaway.
On first reading, TGAW is gloriously meandering – an ambitious, lightning-paced circus of a novel packed with memorable characters and witty asides – but as the plot clicks into place like a butterfly knife you learn the method behind the madness, how carefully Harkaway is guiding you. There was a point when reading it that I literally punched the air in triumph. It got me a lot of very strange looks on the bus.
I’m a little resistant to including this book on this list – Atwood herself doesn’t believe her work to be science-fiction, and the Telegraph described Oryx & Crake as ‘sickeningly possible.’ There’s so little distance between our world and hers – a wildly unequal world where genetic modification and poverty are rife, where corporations and scientists hunt progress devoid of morality. I guess I’m including it because I want to believe its fantasy, instead of a natural extrapolation of the challenges we’re currently facing, a world we might already be living in.
8) Lord of the Night – Simon Spurrier
I taught myself how to write in stages. There’s a lot to balance – character, plot, theme, language – and on top of this I was always obsessed with world-building; the art of creating a perfectly believable version of reality with its own, plausible magic.
Warhammer 40k fanfiction was where I cut my teeth. A lot of the work was already done – races and factions, technology and themes – and so I set up shop in a little corner of that dystopian universe until I was ready to start creating my own.
My introduction to the grim darkness of the far-future was Lord of the Night. In a genre typified by excess it’s a controlled nightmare of a book – all dark poetry and body horror – with two tortured and complex protagonists inextricably bound by loneliness and a slow loss of faith. It’s so visceral you can taste the blood and cordite.
My protagonist, Denizen Hardwick, is fairly useless. Oh, there are things he’s good at – reading, frowning (he has 26) and generally mistrusting people – but even after he gains a sorcerous inferno inside his ribcage, he’s generally not very good at stuff. This is a common trait in protagonists. We as readers like to see them grow, see them learn, imagine how we would learn and grow in the same situation.
Artemis Fowl is a different type of child. He stalked into my childhood from the wrong end of the Hero’s Journey; a jaded criminal mastermind, a villain, at least up to the threshold of his mother’s bedroom, and it’s a testament to Colfer’s wit and charm that you end up liking him anyway. Also I had a slight crush on Holly when I was eleven, which probably tells you a lot about me.
My first experience of Wizard of Earthsea was an excerpt in an anthology of short fantasy stories, and it felt like turning a corner and dropping out of the world into an older, darker, wilder one. I felt every rock of Ged’s tiny boat as the silhouette of a crumbling tower spread its wings to announce its presence, and I think it was that moment that made me love the idea of magic. A little man facing great and terrible odds, with only a skill at words to keep him safe. Le Guin’s world possesses that same sense of concrete geography that only the best fantasy does – a feeling that the world existed long before me and will exist long after I’m gone. I felt very small before it, and very glad I had a fascinating, flawed wizard like Ged by my side.