A Few Of My Favorite Things: Novels

For the last few months I’ve been doing my best to post a weekly Eberron Q&A. I’m going to continue to write these Dragonmarks, but as I am developing a new fantasy setting, I’m going to mix Eberron posts up with discussion of the new world and more general topics. This question seems like a good bridge, as it applies both to Eberron and the work I’ll be doing in the future.

What are your all-time favorite novels, and have they significantly influenced your work?

I read a great deal as a kid. J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs; Oz, Wonderland, and Narnia; Douglas Adams and Robert Anton Wilson; I loved them all. Narrowing it down to favorites is very difficult, because there’s so many stories that I love. It helps that you say “novels”, but I’ll note that something that has definitely influenced my work is mythology and folklore. As a child I read all the myths I could find. When other kids wanted to play Cops & Robbers, I convinced them to play Egyptian vs Greek Gods. From stories of Baba Yaga and the Brothers Grimm to The One Thousand and One Nights, I loved reading the stories that shaped beliefs and cultures, and I definitely think that this has affected my work. So I’m going to focus on novels—mostly—but if you don’t know your folklore, give it a try.

As for novels… in the interests of not having an infinite list, I’m picking ten. These are books I definitely want to have in whatever the media of the day is for the rest of my life.

Night’s Master by Tanith Lee

Take the lyrical style and interwoven stories of The Thousand and One Nights and set it in a world we’ve never seen. I don’t know if I can point to a specific place where the Tales from the Flat Earth have affected my work, but I love the flavor of her world; there’s certainly a touch of the demons of the Underearth in my portrayal of Quori and Daelkyr.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Honestly, I prefer the movie version of The Maltese Falcon to the book, but there’s no comparison when it comes to The Big Sleep. Looking for inspiration for a story set in Sharn? Make Eddie Mars a Boromar halfling, Phillip Marlowe a Tharashk excoriate, and you’re halfway there.

Last Call by Tim Powers

Tarot and the legend of the Fisher King meets Bugsy Siegel and the story of Las Vegas. As someone who loves both magic and games, I enjoy the way this story weaves poker and tarot together. Declarea cold war espionage novel that deals with radio telegraphy and djinni—comes as a close second.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

I love the way that Martin creates a world that feels as though it could be real, and the degree to which most of his characters—albeit not all—feel human. Heroes have flaws, and villains at least have motivations we can understand. My interest has dropped a little over the last few books, and I wish Martin would take a page from Eddings or Tepper—end this story arc in a satisfying way, and then tell OTHER stories set in the world as opposed to having the single story that just refuses to come to any real conclusion. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic series, and taken alone I love the first novel. If I were to point to an impact on Eberron, I suppose I’d say that it’s a world full of intrigues and one where good and evil aren’t always clear cut.

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

It’s a classic and surprisingly fun and easy to read. If you like Stephen Brust’s Phoenix Guards stories, you really should read the original. And setting aside the fact that it’s a classic pulp adventure, change the Musketeers to the Knights of Thrane and Richelieu to Krozen and you have another Eberron campaign ready to go!

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I mentioned that I love mythology, right? Thus, it’s no surprise that I love Neil Gaiman’s exploration of gods lingering in the modern world. I don’t think there’s a particular impact from this in Eberron, but there are a few threads that are relevant to the new world I’m working on.

The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic

This is a story written in the form of not one, but three dictionaries whose entries describe a particular event. Aside from the novelty of the format, I love the flavor of the tales themselves—from Princess Ateh with her mirror that runs slow, to the chicken that laid a Tuesday. Again, not much impact on Eberron, really, but you’ll certainly see some of its influence in the new world.

The Tain, translated by Thomas Kinsella

The epic tale of Cuchulainn. The style is archaic, and you may find it awkward. Personally, I love the way that style captures the flavor of the culture; as one reviewer says, you can imagine a bard telling the tale in a smoky hall. If you enjoyed, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, you might be surprised by the martial exploits of Cuchulainn and his Celtic comrades; the warriors of the tales can leap atop an opponent’s thrown javelin, or catch it midflight and fling it back at the enemy. Certainly if you’re looking for inspiration for using, say, The Book of Nine Swords, The Tain will give you a host of ideas.

Phillip K. Dick

While the question was “novels”, the fact of the matter is that Phillip K. Dick is one of my favorite authors of all time, yet I prefer his short stories to his novels. His ideas are brilliant, and I love the way he questions memory and identity, but often an idea can be captured perfectly well in a short piece. I also appreciate the fact that he’s not afraid to have a story end poorly for the protagonist—something the movies based on his work often forget. “Second Variety”, “Minority Report”, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale”, and “Imposter” are great places to start (in part to contrast them to the movies that they’ve spawned), but it’s hard to go wrong with his short stories. Lei, Thorn, and Pierce are perhaps characters that are especially influenced by Dick, but his fingerprints are all over my brain.

H.P. Lovecraft

Likewise, it’s not a novel, but if I’m talking about literary influences it would be ridiculous to leave Lovecraft off of it. Lovecraft is scattered throughout Eberron, from the cosmic threat of the Overlords and the decaying families of the Shadow Marches and the horrors of the Daelkyr. And The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” surely played some role in my love of dream adventuring and the appearance of the Quori. Other favorite stories include “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Whisperer in Darkness”… but again, it’s hard to go wrong here.

As I said, those are ten things I know I will read again tomorrow, and that I want to make sure stay on my shelf. But there’s so many other authors and stories that I’ve loved. Just for the swift honorable mention:

  • Michael Moorcock. As a latchkey kid, I grew up with Elric and Corum. I loved the stories of cursed swords and doomed heroes, and the battle between all-to-often distant order and sardonic chaos. If this affected my work in some way, I think it set in my mind that things don’t always have to end well for the heroes; even if they save the world, all too often there is a terrible price for power or victory.
  • Jack Vance. If you’ve heard the term “Vancian Magic” and don’t know what it means, you should read Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books just for that. Beyond that, though, I love the untraditional approach of Vance’s fantasy. His Cugel isn’t a fighter or a wizard, and the challenges he faces and the ways he overcomes them are as clever as they are often bizarre. The Cugel stories have a unique cadence and style, and if you don’t enjoy it they probably aren’t going to be good books for you—but you should definitely give them a try. While you’re at it, check out Robin D. Law’s Dying Earth RPG!
  • William Gibson. While his latest books haven’t really grabbed me, Neuromancer kicked off my love affair with the cyberpunk genre, and it still holds up for me today.
  • Neal Stephenson. I started with Snow Crash, and that’s still an awesome read. However, anything he writes is sure to be interesting.
  • Sherri S. Tepper. The True Game books have flaws. However, they are quick and easy to read, and I like the flavor and culture that she builds around the talents. It’s something that could easily go farther and deeper, but as a quick read, I enjoy it.
  • Stephen Brust. As with Tepper, I wouldn’t put Brust’s books on my all-time classics list. But they’re fun. What I also enjoy is the way that he shows the impact of magic on a civilization over time – with the Khaavren books showing a society where magic is just beginning to play a role, and the Taltos books taking things to a place where teleportation and resurrection are everyday things. Again, not the best books out there, but quick reading and fun to explore.
  • Fritz Lieber. I give you this line from Swords Against Death: “In the Cold Waste they sought for Fafhrd’s Snow Clan, only to discover that it had been last year overwhelmed by a lemming horde of Ice Gnomes, and according to best rumor, massacred to the last person…”
  • P.G. Wodehouse. I don’t think he’s had any impact on any of my work except possibly Gloom, but I love me some Bertie and Jeeves.

A few more honorable mentions: The Black Company by Glenn Cook; Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco; Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card; The Princess Bride by William Goldman; Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I just started rereading Good Omens at lunch, and I recently finished Redshirts. I’m sure I’ll think of another dozen books in an hour, but I think this will do for now.

How about all of you? What are some of your favorite novels, and what’s influenced your stories or adventures?