Written by Rob Lane
Bernard Cornwell – The Saxon Stories + The Last Kingdom (TV series)
Bernard Cornwell is my favourite author and Uhtred Uhtredson is my favourite fictional character of all time. From the very first paragraph that I read in a bookshop, Uhtred had me hooked into his beliefs, his attitude, his strength, his insults, his authority and his utterly implacable hatred of fools whether high and mighty or low and weak, and with it set in my favourite period of history, the Dark Ages, the Saxon Stories became a must-read and still are. There’s now been ten books in this series and all of them are utterly thrilling and unputdownable, if that is a word (and it should be); each book is something to savour and devour, and then devour again and again. Whilst some of the more recent books have been a little light, the progression through Uhtred’s life, his adventures, his loves and hates and the depiction of the shieldwall in all its murderous glory is something every lover of books should read. The prologue at the beginning of The Burning Land, where Uhtred as an old man stays at a monastery, is burned into my brain forever.
My only gripe with the Saxon Stories is that Cornwell is happy to call England what it is but completely ignores the Angles that gave England its name and calls the English Saxons, probably so that the reader is not too confused with talk of Angles and of Saxons. If anything that devalues his work and means he doesn’t trust us to understand the difference, but that is a minor gripe in what is an utterly brilliant body of writing.
The Last Kingdom is the TV series of the first two books of the Saxon Stories and it’s very, very good. No budget for a British TV show can compare to Game of Thrones, but the BBC have done an excellent job with The Last Kingdom and it stays very true to the books and is a great watch, even if the pronunciation is a little off (Eoforwic is pronounced Efferwich in the series when it should be Yeoforwich, which became Jorvik to the Danes and then, of course, York). If you enjoy Game of Thrones or Vikings, The Last Kingdom will not disappoint you – and a second series has been filmed, too!
Michael Moorcock – The Chronicles of Corum
Moorcock’s work is incredibly diverse and whilst I have a soft spot for Elric and the Eternal Champion, Corum has always been my favourite, probably because it could easily be a parable of our own legends. The first three Corum books (there’s six in this volume) is utterly on-point fantasy concerning the destruction of Corum’s race (and his quest for revenge) and is the complete antithesis of Tolkien’s work; that’s not to say I do not like Tolkien, I certainly do, but Moorcock provides the reader – at least, in Corum’s books – with true evil, true heroics and the audacity to make the Gods and their shenanigans believable. As well as that, it’s ultimately the best-written of Moorcock’s work in that the prose is sparse, unforgiving and utterly bleak, and that there’s no real winners here as evidenced by the last three Corum books. If you haven’t read Chronicles of Corum yet, go and do so now.
David Gemmell – Knights of Dark Renown
I could have picked any of Gemmell’s works really, but Knights of Dark Renown left a deep impression upon me when I first read it all those years ago. It is Gemmell’s terse prose at its finest; he has always been economical with words and he is unique amongst fantasy writers (apart from Abnett, perhaps) in that the reader’s time is never wasted. Some fantasy writers drone on and on about character motivations or concentrate on world-building to the detriment of the story; Gemmell lets you fill in the gaps, trusting you, the reader, to be intelligent enough to understand what is going on and why.
Knights of Dark Renown is a stand-alone story about a group of Knights and their disappearance, their remaining coward-knight Manannan and his forging of a new group of Knights from various anti-heroes to destroy the enemy of the world, the Red Knights. It was the first fantasy book I read that felt grounded in the real world and made me understand that fantasy, if it is to be believable at all, has to have some connection to our world and the way humans behave and act. After Knights of Dark Renown, I avoided pretty much any fantasy that wasn’t like that – high fantasy, if there is such a thing – and especially those with a series of books, all 500 pages long, that never end. Boring.
Michael Scott Rohan – The Winter of the World
Another author that influenced me greatly in my youth is Michael Scott Rohan. The Winter of the World trilogy concerns Alv (later Elof), a young shepherd who becomes an apprentice to a mastersmith in the far north and who eventually becomes a mastersmith himself after many years and many travails, all in order to save the world from the threat of the encroaching Ice. Apart from Tolkien, few authors have used our own, incredibly rich Germanic myths and legends – and, indeed, our Germanic languages – as well as Rohan, for The Winter of the World taught me in a very obvious way that language is the most important brick in the wall of plausibility; and Rohan does it all without resorting to high fantasy in the way that Tolkien did. Whilst Rohan’s fantasy is more flowery than Gemmell or Moorcock, it is still grounded in reality and it is a crime that Rohan is not mentioned in the same breath as those masters.
Len Deighton – City of Gold
Len Deighton was at the height of his powers when this book was written. If you don’t know him, then you should! You may know the films of his works – The Ipcress File is probably the most prominent – but he’s a curiously ignored author these days. Anyway, I know this is not science fiction or fantasy but I have to include this book here because it is probably my favourite stand-alone book of all time, and it does at least have a fantastical story. City of Gold is set in North Africa during World War II and revolves around the unmasking of a Nazi spy in Cairo, a spy that is ensuring Rommel knows everything about British movements up to the second battle of El Alamein. It’s fast-paced, incredibly interesting and very thought-provoking, and what could have been a by-the-numbers spy story is lifted by Deighton’s superb storytelling, the truth behind the fiction and the fact that the protagonist – Major Bert Cutler – is not what he seems at all. Deighton leaves you wanting more, which is always a good thing!
Dan Abnett – Eisenhorn Trilogy
Most science fiction leaves me a little cold, generally because the worlds they are built around mean very little to me or simply do not make much sense. I do enjoy Star Wars and Star Trek, as well as Aliens and its various offshoots, and I can watch pretty much any sci-fi film if I leave my brain outside for a couple of hours. I like the written works of Asimov, Dick, Clarke, Aldiss and Brunner, and Iain M Banks‘ sci-fi is utterly fearless and always comes up with something new. That being said, for me no sci-fi is even slightly close to the background of Warhammer 40,000 in terms of its scope, credibility and structure. It is the work of genius, a genius named Rick Priestley, and whilst some very poor writers have done little justice to that background a few raise it above anything else out there. Dan Abnett’s masterwork, the Eisenhorn trilogy, is the pinnacle of science fiction for me. Its style, its imagination, its architecture and its sheer pace is unmatched by anything else I have ever read; from start to finish it never lets up, you never really know what’s coming next and it always requires you to think about the choices Eisenhorn makes or could make and, more than anything else, its great fun to immerse yourself in the universe built by Rick Priestley (and others, of course) but brought to life by Abnett.
Robert Holdstock – Mythago Wood
Mythago Wood, as well as Holdstock’s other novels set in Ryhope Wood, was a revelation for it showed me that fantasy does not have to be derived from Tolkien, nor be anti-Tolkien – it can simply ignore the great man and use the ancient myths and songs of our land instead. As well as that, it can also include contemporary characters and thought to mix the real world with the fantastical, both to gain a greater understanding of how different life was in ancient times compared to today and, more importantly, to make the reader understand that there is nothing twee or cute about our ancestors and their beliefs. Without Holdstock and Mythago Wood I would not have understood that the land around us is truly magical and that nature is the greatest storyteller of the ages. After reading this, I dare anyone to walk alone in the woods without trepidation.