teaching fantasy

In my day job, I’m a professor of English. This fall I teach an intro to lit course with a subject of SF/F. One of the things that makes this more tricky than it might be, is that I teach on a block system–students take one class at a time. So this course will be three and a half weeks long, three hours a day. Choosing books for this sort of class is tricky. I tend to want to choose novels, since they are my favorites, and because my students often don’t have a lot of experience reading lengthy materials, for whatever reasons.

This is an introductory course, not a survey, so I don’t feel compelled to give a sense of texts over time. Instead I can focus where I want and when I want. The main thing I want to accomplish is to introduce students to the main tropes of fantasy and sf, give them a reasonably broad taste, and also hopefully coax out a desire to read more.

Right now, the four novels I’m planning to use are Nancy Kress’ new book Dogs, which is only slightly SF and more a thriller. But it brings up interesting themes and I think will generate fruitful discussion. Then I want to use Elizabeth Bear’s Dust, which is a strange and wonderful blending of hard sf and fantasy tropes. It will be difficult for them I think, but worthwhile and also fruitful for discussion. Then I’m deciding between Emma Bull’s War For the Oaks and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel. But that may depend on what I use for my epic fantasy, which right now may be Kay’s Tigana. I love that book and it’s stand alone and has a lot of meaty themes. But it’s long. And this is a short class. Plus I intend for students to read some essays and some short fiction, plus watch a few films.

If I don’t use Tigana, I’m not quite sure what I will use. I need a stand alone epic fantasy, and while there are a number of them I like, I want to use one that fits into the themes of the other books and will also generate interesting discussion. I won’t use my own fiction–I find it a little creepy to ask students to buy my books and then make them talk about them in front of me. I can take the criticism, but my bet is students will feel a little odd about that. I know I would.

So as you can see, planning a three and a half week class is a little bit tricky. Students are immersed and this is their only class, so this is the only homework they have to do in a day. But they also work and have lives and they may be very slow readers. I have to balance texts in terms of themes and what students can learn from them, but also in terms of length and whether students will be able to read them.

But let me ask you. If you had to pick one epic fantasy for a new freshman in college to read to introduce them to the world of epic fantasy, what would be your top choice?

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  1. 1. Tim of Angle

    Poul Anderson, Three Hearts and Three Lions

  2. 2. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Hi Tim! Why do you like that one in particular? I’d love to hear.

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    Depends on what exactly you mean by epic fantasy. Just doing a quick scan of my shelves for stand-alones I’d say either Martha Wells’ “The Element of Fire” or Tim Powers’ “On Stranger Tides” would be excellent choices. They’re both brilliant, though neither is in quite the classic mode of a quest fantasy.

  4. 4. Mary Robinette Kowal

    Well, I would have said “Tigana,” or “Song for Arbonne,” but if you are looking for something shorter… Would you consider book one of a series?

  5. 5. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Kelly: In terms of epic fantasy, I’m thinking traditional fantasy setting, though the quest need not be a part of it. I’ve used McKinley’s The Blue Sword in previous courses, for instance.

    Mary: I would, if it stood alone. I’m reading The Sharing Knife now with that in mind to see. But I do so love Tigana that I may just say the heck with it. Loved your Rain Falling Sideways (is that the right title?) and congrats on the Hugo.

  6. 6. Sam Curry

    One of…

    1) Lord Foul’s Bane (Donaldson): a little edgy in parts and an anti-hero

    2) Jhereg (Brust): plays off some classical themes but downright fun

    3) The Summer Tree (Kay): first in a series…but so what?

    4) The Sword of Shanara (Brooks): fine book, although I like Elfstones better.

    5) Magician (Feist): this is pretty close to “epic norm”

  7. 7. Patrick Regan

    Well, that depends. How are you defining epic fantasy?

  8. 8. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Patrick: Essentially the medieval style setting and some of the traditional trappings. I think what I”m looking for most is the development of an other world/culture, the themes of heroism and good and evil and so on. Tolkein’s books are obvious, but don’t stand alone and The Hobbit isn’t quite what I want. Tigana is one of my favorites actually and I consider it epic. Where countries or worlds are at stake, where magic is integral to the story, where some of the fantasy tropes show up–like the quest for instance. But all of that can be taken broadly.

  9. 9. Timmy Mac

    I’m certainly not a die-hard fantasy reader, but a book that I loved, have read more than once, and seems to fit your description above is Master of the Five Magics, by Lyndon Hardy.

  10. 10. Karen Wester Newton

    Well, in a push for classics that might not be as well known as they should be, how about the Gormenghast books? They are in “epic” in one sense, even if they’re not what people think of when they hear the word.

  11. 11. Patrick Regan

    How about the Green Rider? I would say it fits a lot of your criteria while also being, I found, really approachable in language and in subject matter.


  12. 12. Keilexandra

    I love TIGANA! A little long, yes, but so worth it.

  13. 13. Kes

    If you want Bujold, rather than TSK (which came across as way too romancey for me) I’d recommend The Curse of Chalion. Medievalesque setting, magic, quest, a pantheon of gods, and the most quietly heroic character I’ve read in ages. It’s right behind Memory as LMB’s best. I’d love to meet Miles, but I hope I’d have the courage to be Caz.

  14. 14. Stephen Hope

    If possible, I’d try and make it fit the person a little. Picking blind, my first thought was The Blue Sword, but you’ve already mentioned that. My next thought was Cherryh’s ‘The Paladin’, but even though it feels like epic fantasy to me, I don’t think it has any actual magic in it, so it probably doesn’t qualify (also not medieval, I guess, but neither is Sharing Knife).

    This is hard. I think it’s because I’ve read so much ‘standard’ fantasy that what I look for now is stuff that’s different, and of course, that’s not what you want for this class. I could list a whole bunch of series, but good fantasy one-off books are thin on the ground these days.

  15. 15. Kelly McCullough

    In that case, I’d strongly recommend The Element of Fire. It’s set in a basically Three Musketeers tech level alternate world with a fabulous take on court politics and some really lovely faerie and magic system stuff. It’s currently in print in trade and also available free online as an ebook. Oh, and Kes is right that Curse of Chalion would be a good choice as well.

  16. 16. Alma Alexander

    Another vote for Tigana, here – one of my enduring favourites. Always will be.

    And a vote against “Lord Fou’s Bane”, or anything Covenant – those books are utterly polarizing, and you are liable to lose fully half your class who have the “Loathe it” half of the”love it/loathe it” split those books engender.

    Trouble with length is that ALL good stand-alone epic works are, erm, longish. By definition. I’d suggest Mary Gentle but her “Ash” books are even longer than TIgana…

  17. 17. Liz b

    Bujold’s Curse of Chalion or Paladin of Souls, or Wells’ The Element of Fire. All epic, in a sense, but also more compact, and in argument with the standard tropes of the field.

    IMO, anyway.

  18. 18. Anne

    Elizabeth Moon’s ‘The Deed of Paksenarion’ ; lots of classic themes, and gloriously engaging descriptive writing. Those who don’t read fast enough to get past the first part (Sheepfarmer’s daughter) will still get enough out of it for it to be useful to them.

  19. 19. Kristi

    I come to fantasy via the young adult novels (primarily), so the first suggestion to spring to my mind is The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce (or Birth of the Firebringer, same author). Also, Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings is one of my favorite “quick” reads. It’s a little lighter in the subject matter than a book like Tigana, but that might be better for this sort of class? I’d include the true epics (like Tigana) in a suggested reading list.
    Otoh, one of my most rewarding classroom reading experiences was when a high school english teacher managed to get Dune on the reading list. It was vast and epic (and entirely too long to finish in time for class), but wow, it lit a fire under me for reading more fantasy and sci fi!

  20. 20. Yanni Kuznia

    How about Frank Herbert’s Dune? I remember it being a very influential book for me when I read it in high school (?) as well as being reasonably accessible while exploring many fantasy/sf tropes.

  21. 21. Lara

    I agree with all the mentions of The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. I first read it at about that age, and it has been one of my most favorite books since then. I’d also recommend the first book in the Archangel Series by Sharon Shinn, or her book Mystic and Rider. Or what about Tamara Siler Jones’ book Ghosts in the Snow?

  22. 22. Dotan Dimet

    You want something short (because there’s a greater chance of it being read), old (from back when the tropes were fresh; also, older genre books used to be shorter) and in-print (easy to get copies). I’d suggest Ursula Le Guin’s a Wizard of Earthsea, both for its classic bits and for its untypical aspects – Good vs. Evil framed in a less banal way, a struggle that is personal rather than global and political, and world-building that avoids Middle ages Europe while still being archetypal Fantasy-land.

  23. 23. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Sam: Thanks for the suggestions! I’ve never like the Bane series though. Just didn’t like the anti-hero.

    Timmy Mac: I haven’t read that one in awhile. I’ll have to see if I can find it.

    Karen: I thought about the Gormenghast books, but I think they would be very difficult for non-genre readers to engage with, especially this quickly. I did think of trying to find the movie they did.

    Patrick: I like Green Rider. I hadn’t thought about it for this. I’ll have another look.

    Keilexandra: Yeah, that’s why I’m leaning so heavily toward it.

    Kes: Yeah, I read the beguilement the other day and it isn’t quite it. I’d forgotten about Chalion. I’ll have to see if I can find my copy.

  24. 24. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Stephen: And sort of standard fantasy in some ways is what I want. Or rather, some of the common tropes. And I want good writing, good worldbuilding, good characters and good story.

    Kelly: I’ll have a look at it.

    Alma: agreed on Bane and you know, it’s been awhile since I read Mary Gentle. Need to put that on my remind to read list.

    Liz: Thanks!

    Anne: I like Deeds, but honestly I like the three books together and that’s just going to be too long. I did teach that for an advanced class a few years ago.

    Kristi: that’s what I’d like to do–light a fire

    Yanni: Dune is one I’m thinking about showing in movie form, though I’m not all that excited about my choices of movies. I’m going to have to watch them again (poor me, I know, hard life).

    Lara: I haven’t read Ghosts in the Snow. I’ll have to go have a look. I love the title.

    Dotan: I’ve thought about Wizards of Earthsea. My problem is that it was never a favorite of mine and I’d want to do all three. Okay, I know there are more now, but the three were the first.

  25. 25. Sam

    The first three of the Wizard of Earthsea are probably only about as long as a standard fantasy novel is these days, so doing all three doesn’t seem a stretch. :)

    It’s also very “accessible” because it’s deceptively simple writing, while sliding thoughtful themes in under your radar without making a fuss about it.

    Pawn of Prophecy by Eddings is also a very accessible book to the non-fantasy (or non-anything!) reader.

    For sci-fi I’d possibly suggest Pride of Chanur from CJ Cherryh, it’s standalone (but there’s sequels for your keener students), and while dealing with many sci-fi tropes it’s also from the alien viewpoint, which is a great way to show the potential of what sci-fi allows over “normal” fiction, or possibly Foreigner for much the same reasons.

    If you’re looking for dramitised versions of Gormenghast, the BBC miniseries is an absolute must.

    I’d also consider looking at short-stories for sci-fi, as a genre sci-fi seems to excel at producing short-stories, it gives you something small to ease people in with and if you don’t cover all the stories in a collection, the faster and keener readers will have some extras to look at as a bonus.

    I recently enjoyed reading the Zima Blue short story collection from Alistair Reynolds, it covered a lot of different sorts of story with some nicely thought-provoking stories, but obviously there’s thousands of amazing anthologies out there. :)

  26. 26. Sam

    Oh, forgot to mention in my previous post, I’d be wary of going for a big epic book, since what tickles your fancy may just reinforce the impression of lengthy stodge to someone else.

    Most people can grit their teeth and ignore something they don’t like if they know they’ll be doing other stuff after, if they get halfway through the class and realise that there’s nothing else left to cover other than this doorstop of a book that they don’t like or that they’re just struggling with, they’ll be gone for good.

  27. 27. OtterB

    Maybe the Riddle-Master books by McKillip? Again, a trilogy, but all three together are shorter than many single titles these days.

    And you know, it’s a children’s book, but for an easy read that is still enjoyable and gives you a clear look at the classic motifs, you could do worse than The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander.

  28. 28. Mindy Klasky

    Coming late to the party…

    What about McKillip’s FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD? I haven’t read it in years, but I believe it has a number of the fantasy tropes you’re looking for, along with questions of responsibility and personal cost. It’s in print, in mass market, and it’s a stand-alone (with the added bonus that students who are truly captured by the story have a lot more McKillip to read…)

  29. 29. Peter McLaughlin

    Someone mentioned Tim Powers “On Stranger Tides”, but I would have thought “Drawing of the Dark” a much more accessible, stand alone fantasy, tieing in a real life event (siege of Vienna) with some classic fantasy tropes (Fisher King etc). Plus, it has an Irish hero :-)
    If juvenile fiction is a possibility, what about Alan Garner’s “Weirdstone of Brisingamen” or “Moon of Gomrath” – or even “The Owl Service”?

  30. 30. MonkeyT

    As much as I enjoy Donaldson’s Covenant series, I agree that it’s a love or hate situation, which is not good for new sci-fi/fantasy readers in this limited an environment. I would, however consider Dan Simmon’s Hyperion. Each character’s backstory nicely separates itself from the others using different storytelling styles / genres, which could make for some pretty good discussion. And all are tied together by the combined quest they are all participating in. The second book, if included, hints at another genre tale or two, but primarily works at a furious pace to weave all of those characters’ various threads back together in time for the conclusion.


  1. Matt’s Bookosphere 8/18/08 « Enter the Octopus

Author Information

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Diana Pharaoh Francis has written the fantasy novel trilogy that includes Path of Fate, Path of Honor and Path of Blood. Path of Fate was nominated for the Mary Roberts Rinehart Award. Recently released was The Turning Tide, third in her Crosspointe Chronicles series (look also for The Cipher and The Black Ship). In October 2009, look for Bitter Night, a contemporary fantasy. Diana teaches in the English Department at the University of Montana Western, and is an avid lover of all things chocolate. Visit site.



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