Since everyone has been doing the ’10 Books That Have Stayed With You’ challenge recently — so many that Facebook actually compiled 130k of them to make a set of statistics — I figured I might as well. After all, I was already tagged for it. But as always, I have a lot to say about these books, and I can’t post my usual wealth of links on Facebook, so why not here?
I sorted these chronologically, but they all tip to the younger end of the scale. That’s been noted on the statistics overall, and it’s posited that this is because early influences stay with us most strongly — they help us form our initial opinions, which tend to deflect other influences later in life. I’ve noticed recently that a lot of books, even really good ones, don’t leave much of an impression on me anymore… Guess that means I’m a grown-up!
For some value of grown-up, anyway.
Without further ado:
1) The Buddies in A Day for Knights, by Brad Bluth
This is a book I remember with great clarity for something I probably read when I was two. However, I seem to be the only one on all of Goodreads who recalls it! I think that’s a shame, because it and the other Buddies book ‘Somebody’s Hero’ were cute tales about a duck, a monkey and a rabbit who tried to act kindly and heroically toward other anthropomorphic types, and wore colanders and pots on their heads while going to confront bullies. I believe the stories rhymed; when I think about them, I have a faint rhythm in my head as if I can almost remember the words, but I just can’t call back that far.
Anyway, the fact that I remember this fondly just tells me that even from an early age I was super-attached to tales of underdog heroism and compassion — the latter of which is why I just don’t want to read most of the grimdark these days. If everybody’s going to be jerks, I’d rather they do it where I don’t have to read about it.
2) The Ordinary Princess, by M. M. Kaye
This is another really young book, but helped solidify my idea of princessing as bullshit. The Ordinary Princess agrees with me and runs away to work happily in a kitchen in another castle. I can’t remember much more of it, just that even as a young girl (six, maybe? — it feels weird to pin an age on myself with these things because I was pretty precocious as a reader, which I’ll talk about later), I found this to be a fantastic antidote to all the other stupid princess stories out there. It might have been around this time that I attempted to write my own first story, because I remember it involved a princess but was actually about her handmaiden, and I wrote it in one of those little blue test books we got in grade school. Damn, how old was I?
But I guess that started my trend for avoiding royalty etc. as main characters, just because I’d already decided they were booooooooriiiiiiing.
3) The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper
This is the first book that I can really remember fantasizing about. I wanted to be the main character. I was a little bit obsessed with those medallions he has to collect — but they’re not called medallions in the book, dammit, what was the term they used for them argh!! Anyway, I am kind of a jewelry/shiny things fiend, so the descriptions of the medallions or sigils or whatever-the-pike they were just fascinated me and I wanted to collect and have them all myself.
I have slightly draconic tendencies.
And then there was the magic and the adventure and the proto-Urban Fantasy-ness of it, with the now-typical undercurrent of a secret world of monsters and heroics underlying the normal world we know. I read a lot of similar books around this time, like The Castle in the Attic and the Chronicles of Narnia, et cetera, but none of them made me feel quite so grabby.
Seriously. I still want those things. They were described so well. And the movie was TERRIBLE, including the thingies in them. Maybe this is why I now want to have every single object I write about in my books. I don’t want to use them, I just want to sit on this great big pile of fantasy loot.
4) A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
I like me some wild concepts in my books, and this series is probably what started it. Tesseracts and winged centaur people that are actually something a lot bigger and more complex, and journeys through space and time and…
Honestly, I don’t remember much of this series, just a vague psychic aftertaste that feels like I’d expect someone to have from some kind of hallucinogenic trip. Heh. I should read this book again. Frankly, I should read everything on this list again, since I tend to only ever read a book once and then move on with dim recollections of them churning through my brain like bits in a blender. But that mental sensation tells me that this one was important, and I can still dimly recall the images my imagination made while I was reading.
It’s weird to talk about this.
But all the tesseracts and wings upon wings unfurling, et cetera, definitely had an impact on me for some of the spatio-temporal weirdness I’ve gotten into in my own stories. Later stuff like John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos hit the same buttons, but this came first and made me interested in that trippy shit. I have some weird 70s fantasy art that I saved just because it gives me the same vibe. (And I was born too late, so that’s the only way I can experience that decade, heh.)
5) Dragons of Autumn Twilight, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
Now this, apparently, was given to me by my mother when I was eight. Working at a library as I do now, would I recommend this book to the parent of an eight-year-old? No way, what the heck Mom?? But that response itself is interesting, because I devoured this book at that age — in fact, the whole series, and the one that came after, and the one that came after, and….
These days, I would classify this as adult fantasy lite. It’s not YA because that’s a measure of focus more than subject matter, but it’s not offensive in any way, and probably it plays best to younger teens who aren’t so discerning in their fantasy. I remember one reviewer saying they could hear dice rolling in the background — and I think there is a D&D module that exactly follows the storyline, so that might be so!
But this book got me into D&D, secondary-world fantasy, and adult-level fantasy all in one good smack. I used to have the first trilogy with the original covers (the first seen above) but they died the horrible deaths of being dropped in the bathtub — all three of them. That was how difficult it was for me to put them down. I bought all the supplements, like the atlas and the art book, and I can still sing the frickin’ Kender Mourning Song. (It’s a good song. Don’t diss it because of the kender.)
This is probably what prompted me to start writing my own series, because my memory of my writing back at that era really has the flavor of these early Dragonlance books. Back before I found my own voice.
Speaking of D&D novels…
6) The Crystal Shard, by R. A. Salvatore
I started reading the Forgotten Realms books a couple years after the Dragonlance series, beginning with Darkwalker on Moonshae. This is the one that got me though. As with many readers, it was probably the inclusion of Drizzt Do’Urden that got me — that’s the crouching guy on the cover there, the now legendary dark elf ranger. I’ve talked about this influence before, but this goes back to that whole ‘heroism and compassion’ deal I mentioned in the very first book. Someone who has every pressure on him to be evil — someone who is automatically judged evil by everyone who meets him — instead working with all his might to be good.
I’ve read every single book in this series, which is still ongoing. And now that I’m a more sophisticated reader, I see a lot of flaws in them — though I always tore my hair out at Drizzt’s monologues. They’ve taught me a lot, though. About writing fight scenes, about characters developing lives of their own (that blond barbarian guy was supposed to be the protagonist but almost instantly got sidelined by the complexity of Drizzt’s story), about sympathetic yet deadly antagonists. And the perils of ridiculous names and throwaway villains and the agony of being tied to a franchise that forces you to do hundred-year time-jumps.
I must have written to R. A. Salvatore eight or ten times when I was a kid. I don’t have my actual letters, but he sent personalized responses that I still have in one of my folders. Out of everyone I ever read, he was one of only two I wrote to — and I can’t recall if the other one ever responded. So I learned that too. How cool it is to get a response.
I also ended up playing good-ish dark elves in every MMORPG I ever played that had it as an option, so there was that influence too. FURIEL FOREVER. Wrote a bunch of stories about him, did a lot of roleplaying, and learned to revel in cross-teaming — even PvP ones. It’s like a disease.
7) ElfQuest: Fire and Flight, by Wendy and Richard Pini
This might be the first graphic novel I ever read. It was certainly the most influential, and I still have it and most of its companions sitting on a shelf in my closet where I can grab them down at any time.
What did I like about these so much? Well… My mom will tell you that I always had a thing for wolves, and these rough-and-tumble elf types are wolfriders! Which is exactly what it sounds like, plus a psychic bond. They were also not super-fancy-prissy elves, which I’ve never been interested in; sorry, Tolkien fans, I’m not one of you. Also, right out from the gate in this first volume, is some brilliant multicultural elfishness, as these forest-dwelling savage types are forced into the territory of a civilized desert-dwelling tribe and part-meld, part-clash with them.
The main ElfQuest story is a lot about getting along with other people, whether they be elves or humans or crazy flesh-shaping jackasses. (Okay…a bit difficult to get along with those last types.) But it’s a lot about holding communities and families together in the face of danger, trauma and interpersonal conflicts.
It’s also about a magical palace that fell from the sky.
So there’s that.
I roleplayed in an online holt for years, though I was a stupid kid and a flake at the time, so I probably wasn’t very good. Regardless, I was really influenced by these books, and it’s been difficult to pack some of those influences down in my own writing so that they don’t show themselves so obviously. Eheh…
8) Elric of Melnibone, by Michael Moorcock
My best friend is a much bigger generalist-fan of Michael Moorcock than I am. She read almost all of his Eternal Champion books, I think — while I just read the Elric Saga, because that was all I needed.
This must have been in my early teens, because I remember reading such classics as the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stuff, and the Chronicles of Amber, and the Vlad Taltos series and lots of other male anti-hero stuff back then. But the Elric books always stood out for their sort of ethereal, nihilistic quality. There was always a sense of impending doom and failure, always the black sword draining at Elric’s mind as much as it drained his enemies of life-force. A sort of vague undercurrent of horrifying futility. I never really had a goth phase — I was more industrial — but this definitely was that kind of influence for me.
And I loved the way it ended, because that was exactly the way it had to — the way the character’s life had been going since the very start. That kind of catastrophically destructive character arc was so interesting to me, as well as the way it swallowed up everyone around him. Deb will kill me if I ever go full Elric on a story, but I gotta say, it is an appealing style to me — with characters who try so hard to help, but end up causing all the harm in the world.
I had to have a few black swords of my own. Not exactly Stormbringer, but they serve.
9) Needful Things, by Stephen King
Good ol’ Steve. He was the other author I wrote to as a kid, and while I dimly believe he wrote back, I don’t have a letter as evidence.
I don’t remember when I started reading his stuff, or which book was my first. Probably my mom would know, because it was almost definitely her fault. I’ve been through a lot of horror novels (and movies, and games, et cetera) since then, and while I’ve become attached to writers like Clive Barker and Richard Matheson, Stephen King was definitely the start.
I picked Needful Things because it was the first one that really bit into me. The manipulation of people’s desires and fears, the disintegration of the town’s integrity… King does this theme in many of his books but it hit me the most here. Maybe because of those draconic tendencies I mentioned above. I would not have been able to resist that shop. Heck, while I was watching The Cabin in the Woods, I wanted to pick up and run off with most of the cursed items they find in the basement. Gaaaah I would so die immediately in any horror universe.
I like a lot of King’s other work, like Duma Key and The Regulators and The Dark Half and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and almost all of his short stories. I still need to actually read quite a few though…not sure why I never got around to them. Like It and The Shining, not just his new stuff.
(Side note: his son, Joe Hill, shows signs of becoming just as awesome as his dad, without the folksy twaddle that drives me mad sometimes.)
It’s hard to say how much King influenced me. Maybe on a character-psychology level; maybe on a mood-and-dreamscapes one. But I have to say that once I learned how all his books are interconnected through the Dark Tower universe (and often between each other), I decided he was awesome and really wanted to do that myself.
Some day, I hope to have a gazillion books published myself, all with such subtle links. Mmmmm….
10) The Stranger, by Albert Camus
I read this book as one of those high-school required-reading books when I was….fifteen maybe? And while I found it completely absorbing, I can only dimly remember it now. What I do recall is that it’s one of the few books that ever spoke to me personally, as something more than an imaginative exercise — as something approaching a philosophy.
I will never actually adhere to a philosophy. I’m not interested in fitting myself into a particular sphere of thought, nor do I seek out non-fiction texts that try to explain that mode of thought. What I prefer is to see through a character’s eyes as they view the world with that philosophy — a showing, not a telling — so that I can experience the highs and lows and hiccups and disasters of those beliefs or their lack.
This might have been the first time I found a character that I felt was a lot like me. Somewhat indifferent. An observer. Uninterested in explaining his internal life. Definitely uninterested in forcing the appearance of one. And of course that appealed to me as a teenager, when I went around in a camo jacket and a dour expression and was generally disinterested in human contact.
I’ve grown out of a lot of that emotional insularity, but I still feel like an observer — which is fine. It works for me. I don’t want to be anyone else, particularly not the protagonist of this book. But I remember it was nice to see myself reflected in someone else’s thoughts, and that’s really the joy of literature — and of stories in general. The full breadth and depth of human experience, described for us distant strangers to live through vicariously…
It’s truly a wonder.