The Search For “The Great Fantasy Novel”

If you’ve ever studied American Literature, you will likely have come across the term “The Great American Novel” at least once. It’s something of an obsession here in the States, to have the best and brightest and biggest of something. No sooner has a new work been stamped with critical acclaim and called “The Great Novel of Our Time” then it’s on to the search for the next. After their moment of glory, and maybe a Pulitzer Prize, these titles are primarily relegated to the classrooms of America where they will be mostly underappreciated by high school and undergraduate students.

If you look at Wikipedia’s list of “Great American Novels,” you might wonder why I’m talking about them here at The Ranting Dragon. Only one of those titles could even be considered for a review on this site due to the fact that most aren’t speculative fiction. The one that perhaps has a case, Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, appears on “The Most Begun ‘Read but Unfinished’ (Initiated) Book Ever” and “Most Difficult Novels” lists on Goodreads, which is less than promising.

So why talk about “The Great American Novel” here? Because none of these titles are fantasy, science fiction, or any other sub-genre of speculative fiction. Speculative fiction as a complete genre does not receive a great deal of literary recognition. As part of my formative education in American public schools, I saw speculative fiction on my reading list for just one year, for a dystopian unit in an advanced placement literature class. I read not one science fiction title and not one modern fantasy book (while I think A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain could make a case for being a fantasy, it certainly does not represent the modern genre) during my years in public school and at university. Yet every year, authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Patrick Rothfuss, Peter V. Brett, Guy Gavriel Kay, Neil Gaiman, and many others blow us away with their incredible story-crafting and word-smithing capabilities. Can we truly say that their work is not on par with F. Scott Fitzgerald, more accessible to modern audiences than John Steinbeck, and more engaging than Herman Melville? What is so much better about Phillip Roth’s work that his book American Pastoral will be preserved for the life of the United States as a country, while Robert Jordan’s epic fades over time into obscurity?

Some of these standards are changing. Speculative fiction has been inching its way onto the Pulitzer Prize Winners for Fiction over the past ten years (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road). The Newberry Award has been rewarding fantasy work in children’s fiction (Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book). Thanks to Peter Jackson, J.K. Rowling, and a few others, fantasy has entered the mainstream conscious. It is now not uncommon to see J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit make an appearance on syllabuses across the country. But is the founding book of modern fantasy still the best the genre has to offer? I’m sure we can all agree that the best of fantasy is not limited to books accessible by ten-year-olds. There is a depth to fantasy that goes far beyond the capabilities of children’s fiction.

Help us find “The Great Fantasy Novel”
We here at The Ranting Dragon have decided to answer this question. What is the “Great Fantasy Novel?” We’re looking for a book that is of unparalleled quality in story-craft and writing style. Ideally, it says something about the time and/or place in which it was written or set. The title should be able to stand alone as a complete story, though it can, and likely will, be a part of a longer series. And of course, this novel needs to accurately represent the fantasy genre. Due to the incredible international community fantasy enjoys, we have no nationality requirements for the author. We just ask that the novel is available in English, as that’s what our site publishes in. We’ve asked authors and other bloggers to help us in our quest, and we’re asking you for your help, too.

Over the next six weeks, regular writers here at The Ranting Dragon and our guests will present to you a wide selection of nominated novels for the title “The Great Fantasy Novel.” Each nomination will tell you a bit about the book, focusing most importantly on why we think it deserves to be termed “Great.” We’re asking you, our readers, to suggest a few more novels either in the comments section below or in a nomination thread in the forums. We’ll tabulate the top reader nominated titles that are not also in the staff and guest nominated titles. At the end of August, we’ll open a poll of twenty options that you can vote on to decide which has the right to be called “The Great Fantasy Novel.” We’ll announce the winner the first week of September.

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The following titles have been nominated so far:

The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
The Warded Man by Peter V. Brett
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Leguin
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss 

About Janea Schimmel

Janea Schimmel
Janea is an avid fantasy reader who after college inexplicably found herself working in a library. She was the only one surprised by this strange turn of events. When not surrounded by books, she enjoys working on her own fantastical fiction (thereby restoring order to her universe by having a book nearby), as well as making music (clarinet, vocals, renaissance recorder), cooking, and honing various skills made obsolete by the industrial revolution.

View all articles written by Janea Schimmel.

22 comments

  1. May I be the first to nominate Lyonesse by Jack Vance. Arch, cold and yet full of wonder.

  2. For me, the book that had an excess of the scope, world, ambition, execution & emotion to be considered great is Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

    • Stephan van Velzen

      I’ve heard that said before. I really need to check out Malazan!

      • definitely worth it. The first, Gardens, does have some first novel flaws, but is still enjoyable and from there the series is extraordinary.

  3. “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay – it’s MY great fantasy novel, anyway

  4. Some suggestions for The Great Fantasy Novel: Sabriel by Garth Nix. Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier. Storm Front by Jim Butcher. The Lies of Lock Lamora by Scott Lynch.

  5. Definitely interesting! I look forward to seeing the books you’ll be discussing!

  6. American Gods by Neil Gaiman

    The Odyssey by Homer

  7. I nominate The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

  8. The Name of the Wind
    The Lies of Locke Lamora
    The Prince of Nothing
    The Last Argument of Kings
    The Lord of the Rings

  9. The fantasy novel that got me back into fantasy in a big way was Brandon Sandersons Mistborn series. That said, his crowning achievement so far has to be The Way of Kings. It has my vote.

  10. any of the late Sara Douglass books begining with BattleAxe

  11. Elantris by Brandon Sanderson. It does so many things well, and is a great intro to the fantasy genre.

  12. For me it would be a tough choice between Neil Gaimans ‘American Gods’ and Pat Rothfuss’ ‘The Name of the Wind’.

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