This has slightly morphed into authors that changed my life more than particular books, but it’s still appropriate as I do mention specific titles by each of the authors.
Legend by David Gemmell – Gemmell was an enormous influence on me growing up, and together with Eddings and Brooks, he is partially responsible for my continuing love of the fantasy genre. Long before someone coined the phrase grim fantasy, or the more recent mocking term, grimdark fantasy, several writers were telling stories about grey characters. People who walked the line between good and evil. Those who stepped over the line in one direction and then the other, so that you were never certain of their loyalty. Starting with Druss, Gemmell showed me a world of very human men and women who were able to achieve the impossible when caught up in extraordinary circumstances. But there was always a cost. Even when magic was involved, which some people say gives you the ultimate mcguffin to get out of any trouble, there were consequences and the piper had to be paid. His characters lived by their own moral code and while some were to be admired, others were definitely disturbed individuals who believed they were doing the right thing. A couple of years ago I wrote a short article about why you should read Gemmell over at Fantasy Literature and I still believe he is required reading. Fantasy has even more striations and sub-genres than a few years ago, but he covered several of them over the course of his career and his audience went with him because of the strength of his writing. I hope some modern fantasy writers will also spread their wings in the same manner rather than continually mine the same sub-genre for the entirety of their career. Many modern fantasy writers are walking in Gemmell’s shadow and some may not even realise it, but long before they came up with it, he’d done it a few times and done it well. After the almost antiseptic feel of Eddings and early Brooks (I say early as his later novels were murkier), where good characters were nice people who fought the good fight, and the bad people all wore hoods and were born in darkness, Gemmell showed me that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it what’s you do that defines you. A hero can be cut-throat who saves an old woman from being mugged or a villain is a warrior who’s fallen from grace or has a moment of weakness. Redemption, loyalty, honour and protecting the weak. These themes were common in Gemmell’s stories and while some people find them archaic and quaint, I think they’re incredibly important and apt, now more than ever in our busy modern lives.
I Am Legend by Richard Matheson – This is an incredible book. It’s short, and as I mention below with Le Guin, Matheson tells you a great deal with very few words. I’ve read this novel several times and I’m never bored of it. It’s truly horrifying, it’s disturbing, it’s worrying and it’s a story that has sat in the back of my mind for many years, lurking in the shadows like a patient toad. It’s one of the main influences on my comic series, Empyre, and there again Matheson showed me the power of having a good ending that really pays off. I’m not going to spoil it, but the end of this book is a real gut puncher. It makes you look back at everything you’ve just read and reassess it from a different angle. None of the film adaptations have done it justice and the ending is never loyal to the heart of the novel, which is a shame as it is incredibly powerful. One day a ballsy film-maker might do it right but we’ll see. This book also showed me how thin the veneer of modern society is and how quickly people can revert to something more primordial when a few modern comforts are taken away. It’s also a novel about the human spirit, about hope, about faith in humanity and struggling against seemingly impossible odds. There are so many things to discover in this novel and, depending on what you bring to the table when you read it, you can get something different from it every time. A remarkable novel by a master storyteller.
A Wizard or Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin – I borrowed this book, and then the sequels, from my local library when I was a boy and the stories stuck with me for years. A couple of decades later I bought my own copy of the trilogy (there was no quadrology in my day!) and re-read them. Le Guin taught me about the power of words and how you can use the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. She taught me about how being frugal with your word count can force you to shape a sentence or paragraph so that it creates a very clear picture in the mind of the reader. You don’t need to ramble on and on, filling pages with endless details and world building, in order to make a character, race, city, or object appear convincing or realistic. In fact some of the most powerful books I’ve ever read are very slim volumes and some, not all, of the modern fantasy novels that are huge doorsteps are extremely padded with fluff. As a boy these novels fired my imagination and that is exactly what should be happening, especially in more fantastical novels. Your mind should help shape the world and characters and be partially responsible for transporting you there. In my opinion putting every single little detail on the page is a bad idea and it can have a negative effect. It can make the reader lazy, it can make the reading experience more passive than engaging, and no matter how exciting the story is, it can appear dull and flat, because the reader is observing it from a distance. Simplicity can beautiful and leave the audience wanting.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher – I’ve put Storm Front but in reality the whole Dresden Files series has had a massive impact on me. To date this is the longest series of books I’ve ever read by a single author. I’ve read more books by Stephen King and some other writers, but they’ve not been parts of a much larger story. In my opinion Jim Butcher is the best architect I’ve ever read. He spends a lot of time planning his novels and he’s done lots of interviews online if you want more info about how he does this. But in short he lays out the structure, works out the ebb and flow and the character arcs so that he knows exactly where he is going with the story. From speaking to some writers I know this approach horrifies them as there is less spontaneous creativity and no veering off down side streets to explore unexpected ideas that crop up during the writing process. The flip side of that is all of his novels have several pay-offs that are really well executed and extremely satisfying for the reader, and when you read the novels one after another, they hang together as a cohesive whole. Despite each novel in the series being a standalone story, each builds on the last as it follows the life of the main character, the wizard Harry Dresden. Butcher has taught me about the benefits of planning a story ahead of time, how subtle foreshadowing can pay off further down the line. He’s also taught me to trust the reader and to respect them. If you start to build towards something then you’d better do it right when the time comes and don’t wimp out or you’ll lose your audience if they can’t trust you. If that means wiping out a favourite character, and it is fitting with the story, then you should do it.