Tuesday, 14 December 2010

What Was Your Gateway Genre Novel?

This was the question for the 20th SF Signal podcast. In other words, what books got us interested in reading science fiction and fantasy. As I still get a bit flustered doing these things I wanted to expand on my answer here a bit and clarity something I said in the podcast.

My gateway book was The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. My brothers gave me the trilogy (Sword of Shannara, Elfstones of Shannara and Wishsong of Shannara) for Christmas one year because they liked fantasy and they wanted to read the books.

I was probably around 9 or 10 at the time and not at all interested in fantasy books. I'd read The Hobbit and liked it, but not enough to look for other books of the same style. And I remember reading a book when I was a fair bit younger than this called The Seventh Princess by Nick Sullivan. I enjoyed it (and hunted it down as an adult) but again, it didn't inspire me to read other fantasy books. I was also an indifferent reader at the time, preferring Christopher Pike to anything else. So the Brooks trilogy sat on my shelf.

I remember picking the first one up once and reading the back. The idea of a man without training in magic or swordmanship skills going against the most powerful evil in the land (and presumably winning) struck me as unrealistic. I tried a few pages and found it boring so I put it back down.

Finally, when I was 12 going on 13, I hit a rough patch in my life and needed some escapism. Maybe it was simply a matter of the right book at the right time, but I started The Sword of Shannara and pushed on past the still boring opening. Somehow, this time, about 20 pages in I got hooked. I couldn't put the book down. I read the 730 page novel (probably the largest I'd tried up to that point) in record time (I later clocked myself at 2 1/2 days - but that was when my reading skills were better).

I loved the book. The protagonist was real to me. His struggle to learn magic in the face of feeling like a useless appendage to the more experienced members of the group resonated with me. I liked the flowing descriptions. I liked Menion Leah - the comic relief who's there to prove that he can be more - and who, when faced with murdering someone in cold blood to help his friends, can't do it. I liked the philosophy and the recognition that everyone faces challenges. And that with help and perseverance those challenges can be overcome.

The book was full of difficult choices for the characters. There was action but there was also time for the characters to consider their actions and the consequences of those actions - both immediate and long term.

In the end, it was about a man who has to become a hero, despite a lack of ability and courage.

All of a sudden I was a voracious reader. I ripped through the rest of the trilogy and then moved onto my brothers' collections and when I'd exhausted those, the public library. Tolkein, Feist, Salvatore, Eddings, Weis & Hickman, McCaffrey, Greenwood, no one was safe. I spent the entire summer reading, and when I started highschool I branched out and found more and more authors. I've never looked back.

I've read The Sword of Shannara so often I can't read it anymore (as I know what's going to happen at every point). But I still have that copy (autographed) and it still inspires me. And someday I'll read it again and feel the magic I felt that first time.

In the meantime, it has opened the door for hundreds of other fantastic authors and stories. Oh, and I never found the opening boring again, even though I've read the book numerous times since.

So, what was your gateway genre novel?


Anastasia said...

Thank you for sharing this :) I always find it fascinating to learn how people who love fantasy and sci-fi got hooked up to it.
It also felt very close to home as I have just started reading Terry Brooks for the first time (shame on me), and I so get what you mean about the beginning being not so captivating, and about the character growth, and everything else.

I tried to remember what my gateway book was--proved to be kinda hard, as I was an insatiable and indiscriminate reader--but if I'm not mistaken it was The Wizard Apprentice series by Debra Doyle and James Macdonald, a.k.a. Circle of Magic. They are certainly the most tattered of my books, as I have re-read them more times than I could count :D They also happen to be out of print in my country now, so I cherish them very much.

Nathan said...

Elfstones is still one of my all time favorites, though now many more have been added to it.

My gateway novel was The Hobbit. I asked my dad for something to read and he took me to the store to buy that book. It was amazing, world-shaking to me in my most formative years.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I started with A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline Engle in elementary school. My access to books was limited and I still prefered my animal stories like the Black Stallion and every tale of dogs I could get my hands on. Then my ninth grade English teacher required us to read The Hobbit. After that I couldn't get enough fantasy.

Jessica Strider said...

@ Anastasia - I hate it when books I love go out of print. It's like a piece of my life has been tarnished somehow (and I try to find the book used so I can pass it on to others).

@ Nathan - I think a lot of people come to fantasy via the Hobbit. Tolkien really knew how to paint pictures in his readers mind. He's an inspiration to us all.

@ Susan - Would you believe I've never read A Wrinkle in Time? I'll have to do so at some point. I've heard it mentioned by many people as a great novel.

Ah, too many great books, so little time.