Ten Best Books of the Decade, 2010-2019: Fantasy Studies

Inspired by my colleague and friend Noah Berlatsky, who posted his list of the ten best non-fiction books of the decade, I put together a few lists of my selections of the ten best books of the decade.

This list covers the ten best books in Fantasy Studies published between 2010 and 2019. Of course, this list is 100% subjective, as all such lists are, and represents the scope of my interests, reading, and particular understanding of the field. Other lists cover:

That said, here goes . . .

10. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (2012)

As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality
Michael Saler
Oxford University Press, 2012

An important contribution to our understanding of “virtual” reality, the primary intervention of which is to provide something like a genealogy of how virtual reality emerged from earlier, literary attempts (starting especially with the emergence of mass popular culture in the Victorian period) to create shared imaginary storyworlds. Not quite transmedia studies, not quite fantasy studies, not quite genre studies, it is a unique book that has influenced all three and remains an important and invigorating read. In particular, Saler’s book is a major text for thinking about the relationship among enchantment (fantasy/irrationality), modernity (science/reality), and the textual worlds and practices of popular culture, its producers, and its audiences.

9. The Cambridge Companions (2012, 2015)

The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature
Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.)
Cambridge University Press, 2012

While the first decade of the 2000s saw Mendlesohn and James edit The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, the second decade of the century brought us their collaboration on The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, which is not only an important book in its own right, for establishing the Cambridge-level academic imprimatur that fantasy studies needed, but also an incredible collection, including survey essays of major historical movements in fantasy and scholarly approaches taken thus far. While this companion will certainly need an update as the field expands, it remains a welcome addition to just about every scholar’s collection.

The Cambridge Companion to Fairy Tales
Maria Tatar (ed.)
Cambridge University Press, 2015

The same can be said of Maria Tatar’s similarly landmark collection The Cambridge Companion to Fairy Tales. Though this volume does not compare to the Mendlesohn/James companion as an introductory-level guide to the study of fairy tales, and reads much more like an curious, if interesting, general collection on fairy tales, it is nonetheless a landmark of the decade for fairy tale study, attesting to the continuing theoretical rigor of a field that has long been respected in the humanities generally and stood somewhat outside of fantasy and genre studies despite the obvious overlap.

8. Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction (2016)

Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction
Michael Levy and Farah Mendlesohn
Cambridge University Press, 2016

Mendlesohn makes a second appearance on this list (unsurprising, really, to anyone in the field) with this book co-written with Michael Levy. Children’s Fantasy Literature: An Introduction was Levy’s final book before his early death, and it is a testament to the impact that both he and Mendlesohn have had on the fields of fantasy and children’s literature studies more generally. It serves as an important go-to introduction to the intersection of these fields and the literature they have in common.

7. Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth (2014)

Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth
Brian Attebery
Oxford University Press, 2014

Along with Mendlesohn, Attebery is one of two most influential living scholars of fantasy. This book approaches the question of what fantasy is — a career-long concern for Attebery — and intertwines his answer the concept of myth. For many who study fantasy, concepts like “myth,” “legend,” and “fairy tale” inevitably come up, and myths of ancient cultures are often considered examples of the origins of fantasy (as well as a way to demonstrate the “legitimacy” of fantasy), so Attebery’s book is not only a smartly written study of fantasy but one that asks tough questions of fantasy’s relation as genre/mode to other ways of storytelling in the supposedly non-mimetic vein.

6. The Canons of Fantasy: Lands of High Adventure (2019)

The Canons of Fantasy: Lands of High Adventure
Patrick Moran
Cambridge University Press, 2019

2019 was a damn good and productive year for fantasy scholarship. The medievalist Patrick Moran’s book on fantasy canons, which applies recent work on canon and genre formation to the study of fantasy fiction as it is understood by scholars, bookstores, authors, marketers, and more, is a short but important contribution. While it has been preceded by a number of conversations on fantasy canons, it is a good summary and extension of these conversations that will be a useful go-to for the coming decade of fantasy scholars. It’s not a perfect book, but it will be an impactful one.

5. The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy (2019)

The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy
C. Palmer-Patel
Routledge, 2019

Another 2019er, Charul “Chuckie” Palmer-Patel’s incredible (if Routledge-overpriced) study is has long been needed, as fantasy scholarship has followed formal analysis in the Russian sense, a la Vladimir Propp, but has not adapted well to more contemporary studies of literary and artistic form. Chuckie looks at one of the most derided forms of fantasy: the doorstop-length epic fantasy novel and series. This is the first brick in a wall, and an important look at a number of authors who, despite their importance to the literary field of popular fantasy, have not been discussed much in fantasy studies: Bujold, Lackey, Jordan, Farland, Goodkind, and more.

4. Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings (2013)

Here Be Dragons: Exploring Fantasy Maps and Settings
Stefan Ekman
Wesleyan University Press, 2013

Fantasy authors are great at making things up, and it seems requisite that any new fantasy book/series include a map of the world in which it takes place. This matters a lot more to fantasy readers than readers of SF, historical fiction, and other genres, it would seem. In this incredible book, Ekman offers some explanations why that might be, and teaches us how to read maps (real and imagined) for their ideological, narratological, and artistic values. It is quite an extraordinary book, the kind you wish you had written first but know you couldn’t have done better.

3. A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic (2018)

A Modernist Fantasy: Modernism, Anarchism, and the Radical Fantastic
James Gifford
ELS Editions, 2018

In this book, Gifford brings together fantasy, modernism, and radical left politics to explore their many intersections over the course of the twentieth century, making it clear that, whereas many have claimed SF to be the utopian and radical genre of the Left, fantasy is not to be left behind in the debate over how to rethink the world we live in. While some might take issue with Gifford’s periodization (of modernism), the book smartly surveys some of the classic authors of early-twentieth-century fantasy (Dunsany, Morris, Mirlees), places them in literary modernism, and then looks at some of the major authors of postwar popular fantasy: Peake, Anderson, Le Guin, Moorcock, Delany. I imagine Gifford’s follow-up will be just as important in the decade to come!

2a. The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games (2019)

The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games
Ebony Elizabeth Thomas
New York University Press, 2019

Thomas takes a look at the “dark fantastic” and specifically considers the “imagination gap” between the fantastic creations of fantasy and the inability to imagine a world of color reflective of the racial realities of readers. Thomas looks at Harry Potter, Hunger Games, The Vampire Diaries, and BBC’s Merlin adaptation, and tracks the fantastic imaginary across media from books/stories to film/TV. At a time when SF studies is increasingly turning toward blackness and Afrofuturism, fantasy studies has remained relatively stagnant on race; Thomas is a first, important step in that direction.

2b. Race and Popular Fantasy: Habits of whiteness (2015)

Race and Popular Fantasy: Habits of Whiteness
Helen Young
Routledge, 2015

If Thomas is the important contemporary voice in fantasy studies of race, and especially of the imagination gap around blackness’s representation, Young made waves several years ago with her important monograph on whiteness in fantasy. It is a simple overview of some of the key ways in which whiteness pervades fantasy, but nevertheless important. It seems, today, that while fantasy has been theorized for decades, so much work has yet to be done on some of the basic building blocks that concern contemporary cultural and literary studies, especially as regards ideology and identity. Simple, perhaps, but a necessary and important beginning!

1. Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century (2019)

Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century
Maria Sachiko Cecire
University of Minnesota Press, 2019

The final piece of fantasy scholarship out in 2019, and thus of the decade, but undoubtedly one of the most significant studies of fantasy. It builds on earlier work by authors like Mendlesohn on this list, and demonstrates the significance of fantasy as a mode of thinking, literary engagement, and generic expression in children’s literature. It provide a critical history, using the examples of Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman, and Rowling — easily the quadrumvirate of children’s fantasy in the twentieth century for their widespread impact — alongside Susan Cooper and Nnedi Okorafor to explore the growing significance of fantasy in children’s fiction and the enduring relevance of it beyond our childhoods.


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