This article series is an attempt to outline my perceptions of the fantasy genre as it seems from standing in front of the book shelf at a good book store. Lately, this is what I have seen:
The Perennial Favorites: Goodkind, Jordan, Brooks, and Williams
You just can't go into a fantasy store these days and not run into a thousand copies of these guys' books in hardcover staring back at you. I tried Goodkind and found his work absolutely filthy with perverted content and little or nothing to redeem it in any other dimension. Jordan is Jordan. Too long, excellent characters, good story line, interesting world, and nicely-detailed magic system, but way too long for me to stick with. Brooks I've tried at least three times and failed to sustain interest past a hundred pages; not sure why he's still cranking out endless Shannara sequels. Williams I haven't read but I've picked up his work dozens of times and the back cover copy put me to sleep every time. These perennial favorites seem to be at the top of the sales lists all the time and seem to be a sizable portion of what people consider to be the best fantasy in the mainstream.
Pulp Fantasy: Salvatore, Hickman, and Niles
I've never read any of the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, or other D&D-type fantasies. I worked my way through part of a collection of short stories set in the Forgotten Realms universe and had my fill. I'd rather play D&D than read this stuff. Not necessarily bad, just not very engaging and not worth my time.
Where'd They Go?: Eddings, McCaffrey, and Anthony
These two used to be all the rage but you can't seem to find much of their work anymore. I liked Eddings somewhat, but I eventually tired of the limited world-building, standard character types, and plot-coupon style narrative. I remember that in my elementary and high school days, everyone was reading McCaffrey's Pern series of books. I never was interested in the subject matter much so I never pursued it; nevertheless, there is a huge collection of books out there in this series and once in a while you'll run across them at the bookstore. I never read much of Anthony's fantasy, but I'm not interested much in satire, so I'll probably leave that alone. His one interesting series, the Incarnations of Immortality series, became tiresome after the second book (though I did enjoy On a Pale Horse).
Barely Fantasy: Martin and Gemmel
Martin's work is some of the best writing I've come across for a long time and I enjoyed his pacing and complexity. Ultimately, though, I didn't care for the characters to find out their fate and I disliked the lack of meaning or symbolism in his work. I haven't read Gemmel yet, but I place him with Martin because of what I perceive to be more of a gritty military feel than much concern with magic or other traditional fantasy elements. That's a distant judgment that further exploration will have to bear out, and I will be pursuing a few titles out of the Drenai series soon.
The Vampire and Charmed Cult: Hamilton, Harris, Harrison, and Armstrong
Wow, there is a lot of this out there. Vampire hunters, vampire romance, witch covens, black and white magic, wiccan fantasy--this belongs to the Goth culture. I have never found it anything but alienating and fetish-laden. I guess this is a world I'll never understand.
Twisty Children's Fantasy: Snicket, Pullman, Colfer, and Black
I tend to like the little children's fantasy I've read (Lewis and Alexander, especially) and I've done a lot of research on these authors. I found that Snicket's work really isn't intended for children and is rather dark and satirical, but complex and interesting enough to be worth a closer look. Pullman has a conscious agenda to cast aspersions on Christian sensibilities, so I can't imagine I'd like the symbolism or drift of his works. Colfer hasn't received very good reviews, but remains popular--not sure what to think of that. I don't get a good sense after picking up the books from the shelf. As for Black, since she has DiTerlizzi doing her artwork and the books are very short, I'll probably pick up a copy of her work at some point and take it for a spin.
Revisionist Fantasy: Bradley and Maguire
Bradley is the pioneer of feminist fantasy that has the express purpose of placing women as the main roles in her books. I read through one of her collections of short stories and enjoyed a few of them. I tire quickly however of tough-guy girls blasting barbarians with battle-axes in a toe-to-toe fight so I'll pass on the rest of her stuff. Maguire seems bent on turning all the bad guys of traditional fairy tales into good guys, which I generally frown on. I prefer the moral force of the originals to the lazy ambiguity of revisionist fantasy any day.
The Median of the Genre: McKillip, Lackey, Feist, Modesitt Jr., and Farland
This leaves us with only a few more significant contributors to the field. These writers are fantasy's meat-and-potatoes: for those vapid consumers of fantasy, their diet must consist of large helpings of this stuff, since it's the most widespread while sticking to the core of the genre. McKillip has some solid work (Riddle-Master Trilogy, Alphabet of Thorn) but I wouldn't call it outstanding. Lackey has a wide swath of novels (Valdemar series), as does Feist (Conclave of Shadows, Riftwar Saga), and Modesitt Jr. (Recluce and Corean Chronicles). Farland seems to be adding more all the time (Runelords series). All of these authors are somewhat engaging, but in the times I've tried to pick up and run with them, I just couldn't seem to get excited about the subject matter, characters, or world. Worst of all, this group of writers seems to be laden with "gimmick magic", that is, stories and worlds that are wrapped around some kind of gimmick that tries to make magic unique for the reader. I've got another post coming on why I don't like this approach to magic in fantasy.
The New Urban Fantasists: de Lint, Mieville
These two authors are often acclaimed as having set off in their own direction. I place them together here because much of their work seems to have a dystopian, urban feel to them that would resemble cyberpunk if it weren't for the preponderance of fairies, earth magic, and Native American and New Age spiritism. Both of them are excellent authors. I've read part of Mieville's King Rat and flipped through various de Lint anthologies and part of his Jack of Kinrowan series. I don't mind dark fantasy, but this stuff rarely has characters or plotlines that rise above urban culture's fascination with filth, sex, drugs, and hopeless resignation to a mechanistic and hostile world. I will keep trying with both of these authors in the hope that one work or another (Svaha, Perdido Street Station) will rise beyond these things.
The New Masters: Wolfe, Le Guin, Gaiman
And finally this leaves me with three authors that seem to be the most promising. Gene Wolfe tops my list and seems to be capturing a lot of the attention of the field with works in his Book of the New Sun series. The quality, style, and content remains to be seen as something I'll enjoy over the long term, but from what I've seen so far, I'm hopeful. Ursula K. Le Guin has written the excellent Earthsea series. Most of the rest of her work seems to be more sociopolitical polemics and philosophical fiction (Dispossesed and the Left Hand of Darkness), but her skill and imagination make these works worth exploring. Finally, there is Neil Gaiman, author of the famous Sandman series of graphic novels. He has recently ventured into more conventional fiction, but his works are widely seen as genre-bending and containing much more than your average fantasy narrative. I look forward to checking out American Gods and Neverwhere. All three of these authors seem to be the only ones doing what fantasy originally did: invite readers into new worlds that sheds fantastic new light on this one and leaving strange worlds impressed on the reader's imagination that remain long after the book returns to the shelf.