This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Fantasy readers who want to dickwave about their erudition like to use The Lord of the Rings as a benchmark. Are the only fantasy novels you can name clear imitations of Tolkien? Did you only start getting into fantasy after the Peter Jackson movies came out? Have you not got around to reading any fantasy preceding the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring? If any of those apply, there are those who’ll consider you a lesser fan on those grounds alone.
These people are arseholes and you shouldn’t listen to them; you can be a fan of something without giving much of a fuck about its history. As far as fiction goes if you don’t enjoy a book in and of itself, or you don’t have a wider interest in its place in the particular genre or tradition it sits in or the place it came from or the author who produced it, then there isn’t really much good reason to read it. But if for some reason beyond my understanding you want to impress a fantasy elitist you could always drop Jack Vance’s name; with the first volume in his Dying Earth series being published in 1950, well before Fellowship came out, he’s got the “predating LOTR” angle properly covered, and with the spellcasting system in pre-4E versions of Dungeons & Dragons being called “Vancian” (due to it being a flavourless approximation of the way magic works in The Dying Earth) he also ticks the “influenced far more people than have actually read his stuff” box. On top of that, he actually has a fairly individual and distinct style which, if you happen to enjoy it, means the books are also strong on the whole “actually fun to read” front.
Inspired by a recent burst of enthusiasm for the Dying Earth RPG in my general vicinity, I just reread the books for the first time in years. I still love them, but because of some things I noticed in this readthrough, I’m not sure it’s a love I want to parade around openly. So obviously I’m going to blab about it here for you all to see. (In the event you do decide to tackle this stuff, omnibus collections of all four books are readily available, plus Vance’s official website and Gollancz’ SF Gateway offers e-books with texts taken from the Vance Integral Edition.)