There are a lot of top tens out there, lists of books someone thinks everyone should read in their lifetime, or top ten most influential books. I’ve read some of them, and what I’ve found is most of these lists are highly subjective. I suppose if you read every book and pick it apart like a movie critic then people might come to the same conclusions about ‘good’ books. For myself, however, I read books to be entertained. Just like movies, I don’t go into it with the idea that I’m going to pick it apart and make sure the author used all the normal conventions, and stuck to the rules of writing, along with giving me a good story. I simply want to sit down, read a book, and at the end be glad that I did. Some books I’m happier about than others, some have had a huge impact on my own writing, and some have been unexpected gems. Most have been fantasy, but even if you don’t enjoy that genre one of these books might just be good enough to change your mind on it.
1. Dragons of Autumn Twilight
One of the first books I read, voluntarily, was a Dragonlance book called The Legend of Huma. It’s one of my favorites but it didn’t make this list because as a whole the Dragonlance series has been very influential on me and Dragons of Autumn Twilight is what started it all. I’d be hard pressed to choose between Autumn Twilight and Huma, but I think Autumn Twilight wins out by a very slim margin. Few worlds I’ve come across, in my many years of reading fantasy and sci-fi, have been as detailed and lovingly rendered as Krynn (the name of the world in the Dragonlance Saga). I’ve always been drawn to the deep and interconnected history of the world and the books written in it. You can read a book about an ancient hero, Huma for instance, and then read references to him in many other books set in countless time periods in Krynn’s history. References to battles, major events, cataclysms, and vile villains abound in every book in the series and then you can read the full tale of those people and places in another. It truly makes you feel like each book is part of something larger.
For Dragons of Autumn Twilight, this begins the Dragonlance Chronicles trilogy, about a band of adventurers and friends who unwittingly find themselves on a path to save the world. Throughout the trilogy our heroes, all unique and detailed characters, experience love, loss, hope, and triumph all while taking us along for the ride. The trilogy is written by a fantastic partnership of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, creators of Dragonlance and authors of many other great books, who bring the world to life with rich detail and great story-telling. If you are in the market for a new series, appropriate for just about all ages, you won’t go wrong picking up this book (and those that follow).
2. Elfstones of Shannara
I admit, Terry Brooks is one of my few idols. I read his Heritage of Shannara series first, but I found Elfstones to be one of the best of his books and picked it because I think it’s the one that starts to really set the tone for his world. I don’t follow with the common criticism that his first book was too much like Tolkein, it’s just an unavoidable similarity due to inspiration. Honestly, when Brooks wrote Sword of Shannara he didn’t have a lot of other fantasy books to inspire him. I got into fantasy books about the same time I got into playing Dungeons and Dragons, so it’s unavoidable that I was drawn to books written in the world I played in. Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and so on. Elfstones was one of the first fantasy novels I read that was both similar, and completely different than the game I played. It was my first encounter with a completely unique system of magic for one, but also a world where the most dangerous things the heroes face weren’t orcs, goblins, or dragons. While the world of Shannara isn’t completely devoid of monstrous denizens, the stories set in Shannara deal more with the heroes’ struggle with themselves, and the fight to overcome evil and corruption in other people. You’ll still find your share of demons, trolls, and even a dragon, but honestly these books are really about people.
The story follows our unlikely hero, Wil Ohmsford as he tries to find a new home for the elven people. The elves are at war with their mortal enemies, demons from the ancient world returned, and their home is in trouble. Wil, with the help of an elven princess, Amberle Elessedil, must find a new place to plant the magical tree known as the Ellcrys, before the demons overrun the elves and destroy the old one. Why the tree you ask? Well, the demons are held in a magical prison known as the Forbidding, and the magic that keeps them there is the Ellcrys. The tree is dying, so the barrier is weakening and some demons are on the loose. They figure if they can destroy the tree they can bring down the barrier and release their kind into the real world again.
3. The Diamond Throne
David Eddings has been an author that inspired me but also frustrates me. His early series were great, very creative, and fantastic to read. In later books the characters, dialogue, and themes started to seem exactly like the earlier books I’d come to love. He’s been one of my favorite authors, but also one of the few that made me stop in the middle of a book and put it down, never to pick it back up. A very unfortunate like/dislike relationship. In either case, I found great inspiration in the characters in this book and the two that followed. I can still remember the staunch knight, Sparhawk and his horse (even the horse had character!). The old squire that should have been a knight but was satisfied with his place in the world, and the large knight that preferred an axe over a sword. Eddings does a good job of bringing a cast of characters together and giving each a bit of the spotlight without taking away from our main hero or his story. I read this book ages ago, and if I picked it up today, after all this time, I may find it as unsatisfying as David’s later books, but I won’t, just to preserve what I did take away from the experience. So, this entry is on the list with a small grain of salt unfortunately.
As for the story itself, it centers on the age-old tale of the heroic knight set out to save his damsel. The queen, and former student of Sparhawk, is trapped in a magical spell keeping her in stasis. Sparhawk comes back from exile and finds out, and sets out to find a way to save her. While the theme isn’t all that unique, the characters and delivery were, and why this book has always stood out among the masses lined up in my library.
4. Across the Universe
I did a review of this book right after I read it, so I’ll save some of the repetition. You can read it here. I just want to reiterate that this YA book, great for young and old, is one of the best reads I’ve had in my hands in awhile. So were the two that followed. Beth Revis manages to deliver a fascinating mix of science fiction, romance, mystery, and comedy in this book that is packed wall to wall with great writing. Of all the YA books I’ve read this is one of the few that stands out and the only one so far that made me pick up the sequels when they released and interrupt my normal reading schedule to fit them in. Normally I have my books planned out months in advance so that I don’t forget a book in a series, which used to be a problem for me. I am still catching up on some series where I bought the first couple of books and forgot about the others and have found they are either out of print or nearly impossible to find. Anyway, for me to pick up a book that isn’t ‘in line’ with my totally obsessive reading schedule is rare and this book, and the two that followed, did just that. Pick up all three and read them straight through, I promise you will thank me.
Yes, I’m talking about the dusty old book written in 1897, by Bram Stoker. Not some new-fangled (heh see what I did there, fang…) hatchet job, retelling, reboot, modernized adaptation, sparkly, frilly, slick-haired pretender. There’s a secret, for anyone not sure about reading a horror story…it’s NOT a horror story! Bram Stoker manages to deliver a trojan horse, an honest to goodness love story disguised as a tale of darkness and evil. Let’s boil it down to its basic theme. Man falls in love with woman, so deeply he would do anything for her. Woman dies, and he will do anything, even sell his soul, to have her back. Jump forward (because he did sell his soul for immortality) and man sees woman reborn and does everything in his power to have her, even kill. In the end he loses, because he does everything for the wrong reasons, and in any good story the bad guy loses, even when the bad guy is our protagonist. But just at the end, in that last moment before the sun comes up and we get our happy ending, he realizes his mistake and professes his love. Set aside the blood, killing, vampires, impalement, and all that, and at its heart this is a real love story. No sparkly wimps who are on the verge of crying over moody (and emotionless?!) girls who are really just rebels without a clue. Read this book!