The Imaginary Realms of
Gilbert M. Stack


Classic Fantasy

Classic Fantasy

Here are a few reviews of either genuine classics of the fantasy field or from books featuring characters who have become classics of the fantasy culture.


The World of J.R.R. Tolkien by Dimitra Fimi

I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while in the sixth grade. Since then, I’ve reread the main books a great many times and read The Silmarillion at least four or five times. I’ve also picked up and enjoyed a handful of the other books published after Tolkien died. I always enjoy learning more about Middle Earth and how Tolkien came to write it and that’s what this Great Courses series does. It tells you a lot about how Tolkien came to create the best-known fantasy world in all of literature and focuses mostly upon those other books of Tolkien lore (not that she ignores the main four). If you enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, this is a must-read series of lectures. I’m sure I’ll read it again one day myself.

The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickinson

I read this book in high school and stumbled across it again in audio format and decided to give it another read. I had very good (but limited) memories of the novel. A guy gets stuck in a dragon’s body when he tries to follow his fiancé through a science experiment gone bad. After that, it’s pretty much a fantasy adventure with some scientific understanding thrown in.

Second time around, I still enjoyed it. It’s a pretty good adventure story which, forty years ago, would have felt fresher than it does today. There are a number of good characters and a decent problem to be resolved. I may give the sequels a chance.

In Alpha Order by Author

Atlas of the Serpent Men by Chris L. Adams

This tribute to Robert E. Howard’s Conan starts on a strong note giving a very credible account of Conan facing off against a band of thieves. The crisp action pulls you right in and doesn’t let you go from start to finish. Adams has a real feel for everyone’s favorite barbarian. These are pages that feel like REH could have penned them. There’s also a delightful piece of Conan flash fiction at the end so make certain you read to the final page.

The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Terry Brooks’ first epic fantasy novel, The Sword of Shannara, helped to open the door wide for the modern fantasy genre. Critics like to point out that the book is heavily dependent on Tolkein. That’s probably a polite understatement of reality. Tolkein’s imagery and conflicts scream from many of the pages and yet it is still a well woven, enjoyable story which sets the groundwork for the remainder of the series.

I read this book both as a teenager and then again some twenty-five years later. It’s not my favorite book in the series, but I did enjoy the story. Many of the characters remained vivid in my memory over those two and a half decades and it maintains a fond place in my heart. Later books (Elfstones and Wishsong) are better precisely because Brooks broke out on his own and wrote truly independent works. In the final analysis, I don’t think it was wrong of Brooks to write a tribute to Tolkein and it’s a credit to both men that the Shannara series has thrived so well in the expansive fantasy field.

The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The sequel to Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, Elfstones is a far superior work. It tells the story of the grandson of Shea Ohmsford, hero of the first novel, and his efforts to help a young elf girl save the world while a few brave men try to hold off demonic forces to save the elven kingdom As a teenager, I figured out about half way through the novel what “saving the world” meant in this book and I read with growing horror as I discovered that I was correct. It’s a very powerful story.

Elfstone is a fast moving, action packed novel filled with wonderful characters: The Iron Man, Stee Jans remains one of my favorite heroes of all time; The Rover woman, Etria, one of the strongest characters in the book, whose only flaw is that for some incomprehensible reason, she likes Wil Ohmsford; and the introspective Prince Ander, who finds the weight of a kingdom on the shoulders he is quite certain are not ready.

This is my favorite of the Shannara books. It’s definitely worth your time.

Khaled by Francis Marion Crawford

This was one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read. Khaled is a genie who is also an adherent to the Muslim faith who strives always to live by Allah’s dictates. He goes astray, however, when he intervenes in human affairs and kills a non-Muslim prince from India who has lied about his willingness to genuinely convert to Islam in order to gain the hand in marriage of a Muslim princess named Zehowah. As punishment (or possibly as reward) for killing the prince Allah decrees that Khalid will become a human man and if he can win Zehowah’s love, he will gain a soul and have the chance that every human has to achieve paradise.

This is a truly beautiful tale. Khaled knows little of women and Zehowah believes she knows nothing of love and is incapable of feeling it. So they have great discussions about the nature of love and the ways in which men and women should interact. Khaled tries various strategies to win Zehowah’s love, becoming increasingly frustrated with each failure. Yet, he never loses his faith in Allah and his desire to act rightly in accordance to Allah’s plan no matter what the consequence to himself. For her part, Zehowah has a genuine desire to be a good wife, but just doesn’t have the sort of feelings that Khaled needs from her. This is a tense and intriguing masterpiece from an author I’d never encountered before, but will definitely read again.

Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Lieber

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are legends of fantasy literature and it was a genuine joy to stumble across this volume which opened their adventures even if I came away from the experience somewhat disappointed. The book is divided into three novellas. The first tells how Fafhrd left the icy north, the second how the Gray Mouser got his start, and the third how the two met in Lankhmar. The first novella was too long by far, but still gives a good account of the young barbarian hero. The second held my interest much better and made the Gray Mouser by far the more interesting character to me. But it’s not until the third that Lieber hits his stride and shows the beginning of the duo’s feud with the Thieves’ Guild. There’s a lot of action, but it’s their swords against the deviltry of the Guild’s warlock that really shows their grit. Over all, it’s a fun adventure, but a little long and not nearly as great as I remembered.

The Swords of Lankhmar by Fritz Lieber

I remember this as being Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser’s greatest tale. It’s a full length novel instead of the typical collection of long short stories and it’s full of action straight through, proving once again that the two heroes are both truly puissant warriors and very very stupid when it comes to women.

The plot is one of the best. The rats are taking over Lankhmar and because the Overlord is truly stupid and gullible, it’s going to be up to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser to save the day. The problem? A partially human rat (it’s not really clear that she’s a wererat or anything) is very beautiful, and the two heroes continually take her side even though they know she’s a bad guy who has actually tried to kill them. Evidently, one smile and they are re-hooked. It got a little annoying, but it didn’t actually surprise me that much. Besides, if they had acted intelligently, the whole story would have been over by the end of chapter three.

That being said, we do have some great scenes in this novel. The opening chapter is the piece of Fafhrd and Gray Mouser bravado that I remember best of all of their books, and Gray Mouser getting himself shrunk down to rat size is really funny. If you’re going to try this series, this is the book I’d most recommend.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

When I was in high school, my best friend used to mention what a wonderful book this was, but for some reason I never borrowed it from him to read. I had thoroughly enjoyed The Riddle Master of Hed and its sequels, but inexplicably that didn’t prompt me to read this one. What a mistake that was. I just finished the book some 35 years later and it is a masterpiece—a totally beautiful story lusciously written.

McKillip is one of the few fantasy writers I have ever read that manages to create strong pacifist-leaning characters who deal realistically with the heart-wrenching turmoil of their days. This is a book with unexpected twists and turns, intense love and hatred that lead to heart-wrenching character growth. It was so obviously a labor of love to write and will be a treasure to reread again and again. Take the time to experience this one. You won’t regret it.

The Chronicles of Amber by Roger Zelazny

When I was in ninth grade, I joined the Science Fiction Book Club and got a five-book-for-a-dollar deal as part of the introductory offer. I picked The Chronicles of Amber because it had a cool cover and the two volume set counted as one book. At the time I had never heard of Roger Zelazny, but after racing through the two-volume set, I would try and get my hands on everything he’d ever written. Yet even as I devoured his other works, I kept coming back to Amber. I’ve read the books a dozen times, listened to the audio version narrated by Zelazny, himself, played the RPG both in person and in an extended email version, composed my own stories imagining what would come next, and finally happily bought the e-book versions so I can continue to enjoy them again and again. This is one of the greatest adventure stories in science fiction and fantasy and if you haven’t yet read it you should stop reading this review right now and go get yourself a copy.

Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Amber is really one novel broken into many parts, but unlike Tolkien’s masterpiece, Roger Zelazny took advantage of the publisher’s decision to present the work as five separate books to tell five different types of stories. Nine Princes in Amber is a Who Am I? tale. The Guns of Avalon is a straight adventure piece. The Sign of the Unicorn is about politics and intrigue. The Hand of Oberon is a story of manipulation. And finally The Courts of Chaos wraps up the adventure with a great journey which completes the hero’s growth while simultaneously providing an exciting and highly satisfying ending.

So take a visit to Amber, or, if you’ve already read it, return as if you’re seeking out an old friend. I’ve read it enough times to know that there’s something you’ve forgotten or missed that makes each reread make the whole work feel fresh.

Dilvish the Damned by Roger Zelazny

Dilvish remains one of Zelazny’s best characters. A hero who has the misfortune of stumbling across an evil wizard preparing to sacrifice a woman to some dark god, Dilvish is banished to hell where he spends a couple of centuries before managing to escape again. He returns determined to gain vengeance and in the possession of a handful of devastating offensive spells (but no little magics like unlocking a door). He also has a companion, a steel demon horse named Black who is by far the best character in the series.

Each “chapter” is a short story published over the length of Zelazny’s career and they get better as Zelazny developed his talent. The first I read was Tower of Ice and it remains my favorite, but frankly all are quite enjoyable. Ultimately this a story of a man consumed with vengeance who never quite loses the hero within him.

A Gathering of Heroes by Paul Edwin Zimmer

This is a fantasy novel unlike any other. The plot revolves around a group of heroes called together to defend a critical fortress against an army made of evil creatures. The heroes are mostly from a highlands-style culture. Each is known for his great deeds, jealous of his reputation, and caught up in a web of politics that makes it very hard for the good guys to stay united to try and save the day.

The story is told from the point of view of an outsider—Istvan the Archer, perhaps the greatest swordsman currently alive. He’s very different than the highlanders in that he comes from a culture much more akin to the Italian City States and he is the commander of a mercenary company (not with him for this adventure) which means that he is used to fighting a more orderly and disciplined war than these highlanders do. The reader gets to learn about the situation even as Istvan does.

And then there are the heroes among the bad guys—notable villains who are every bit as talented and fearsome as the heroes defending the fortress. And that’s really what makes this novel work so well—watching the heroes among the bad guys face off against those among the good guys and often win the day (which is obviously bad for the forces of good). It’s a remarkable novel with many memorable scenes and an ending that will test the metal of even the bravest hero.