I'm an avid reader. I probably read two books every week; 100 books a year. Many of these are non-fiction (history, popular science, or economics). Only about a third of my selections are fiction. I'd read more fiction, but unfortunately have a serious problem: Anything I read inspires me to run role-playing games!
Whenever I read Neuromancer, I want to run Cyberpunk 2020. Anytime I pick up Starship Troopers, I start breaking out TSR's old RPG Bughunters or the more recent 3:16 Carnage Amongst the Stars. That doesn't seem like a problem until you remember that I'm already running two campaigns - I've no time for another, and I can't stop running one of them just because William Gibson got me fired up. As a result, I have to carefully manage my fiction reading. If I'm running Dungeons & Dragons, I only allow myself to read fantasy books. If I'm running Car Wars, I restrict my consumption to post-apocalyptic fiction. The benefit of this somewhat ascetic practice is that I have compiled a master list of which books are most inspirational for which genres. In today's column, I'm sharing my list of fantasy books, along with some brief comments on why each one is inspirational.
In alphabetical order:
Anderson, Poul. The Broken Sword; Three Hearts and Three Lions; The High Crusade
Most fantasy writers are influenced by Tolkien - either they are embracing him (like Robert Jordan), deconstructing him (like George R.R. Martin), or rejecting him (like Michael Moorcock). But Poul Anderson was a contemporary of J.R.R. Tolkien, and much of his best fantasy was published around the same time. This makes Anderson one of the few fantasy writers who were not influenced by Tolkien at all. Anderson was inspired by the same legendary sources as Tolkien, so his tales are replete with elves, wizards, and magic swords, but they are set in mythic Europe rather than Middle Earth. Christianity and paganism are explicit rather than implicit, and the medieval setting is far more authentic. If you enjoy Dungeons & Dragons, you absolutely must read Three Hearts and Three Lions, which is the original source for D&D's alignment system, paladins, and regenerating trolls.
Bakker, R. Scott. "The Prince of Nothing" Trilogy; "The Aspect-Emperor" Trilogy
R. Scott Bakker is my favorite fantasy author. He combines an epic sensibility with an incredible breadth of philosophical and cultural knowledge. His two linked trilogies rank with A Song of Ice and Fire and Lord of the Rings as the crown of fantasy fiction. Yet while Tolkien and Martin offer us worlds that have far less magic than your average D&D campaign, Bakker is able to develop a realistic and plausible fantasy world that is richly magical. The way Bakker balances the power of army-destroying sorcerers, and weaves in familiar RPG tropes like evil humanoids, while establishing a setting firmly rooted in Europe's First Crusade, makes it worth any GM's time.