The fantasies I like all seem to have something in common- especially the ones by my five favorite authors, Guy Gavriel Kay, George R. R. Martin, Terry Pratchett, Steven Brust and (now) Carol Berg.

So I thought I would make a list, since other than Pratchett, those authors aren’t really that big-name and have a lot of critics, and try to divine what I like about them.

1) Violently gray characters.

One thing that irritates me about a lot of fantasies is how the gray characterization tends to be confined to the ‘good’ side. It’s all right for the hero to do a little soul-searching- of course, the suspense is lessened because he always makes the ‘right’ decision in the end- but heaven forbid your antagonist should be complex. There’s Robert Jordan’s Dark Lord, who wants to take over the world because, um, I don’t know, it’s there? There’s Terry Goodkind’s Darken Rahl, who butchers and tortures kids just so that you know he’s bad (as if the name didn’t tell you). There’s Lynn Flewelling’s necromancers, who must be evil, because they work with the dead!

No. I don’t want sides, if possible. I want gray characters all over the place. Kay and Martin do this in their historical fantasies, where it’s probably easier to write about worlds without a dark lord because our own world doesn’t have a dark lord. Still, even other historical fantasy authors don’t dare anything like Martin’s making a character who has an incestuous relationship with his sister likable, or Kay’s bold move in Tigana that makes many readers like the supposedly evil sorcerer, Brandin, better than the desperate heroes. These aren’t just characters angsting a tiny bit over what you know they will do anyway; these are people who are making moves where it’s genuinely impossible to tell right from wrong. It’s the reason I love them.

Pratchett does things a little differently, obviously, since many of his fantasies have some element of parody or humor. But his villains still serve no dark lords. The closest he comes to that are the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions of the first books. Most of the time, his villains are either actually good people who don’t know what they’re doing (such as releasing evil into the world via making movies) or murderers who kill for personal reasons (Teatime in Hogfather, Carcer in Night Watch). Stupidity is the enemy in most of Pratchett, not darkest evil.

Brust’s hero Vlad Taltos is amoral, an assassin/crime boss/owner of brothels and illegal games, and he doesn’t care who knows it. Even when he grows a conscience, he doesn’t do it to please someone else; the nagging of other people, like his wife, tends to drive him further away from them. And he does stupid, incredibly risky things several times, with the payoff coming not because he’s a shining hero of light but because he is so goddamned cool. The Vlad books are sarcastic, very noir, and full of themselves. And, again, there is no dark lord.

Carol Berg’s Rai-kirah saga, which I raved about a few posts back, does seem to have uncomplicated characterization at first: the poor slave, the vicious and abusive master. But the vicious and abusive master is actually someone destined to save the world, and it’s the poor slave’s job to see that he gets there, while surviving demons. And then the demons turn out to be other than he thought them, too, while the slave becomes the hero and goes through more and more morally ambiguous transformations. It would be hard, really, to call Seyonne a hero- he mostly does things no one else wants him to do but he thinks he needs to, and he makes mistakes all the damn time. And he winds up unsure many times if he’s really done the right thing. Wonderful books.

As I said, other fantasies with their whining heroes who suddenly grow backbones as their confrontations approach and their soulless dark lords just can’t measure up.

2) Brutality.

Not flinching from the worst aspects of their world, but presenting them full on. This is something fantasies should actually do more often, since so many of them are based on the medieval model, but rarely choose to follow. Instead, there’s some vague rumors of war and desolation, or the damage is presented to the land rather than to people or society. Perhaps the sight of broken trees is easier to bear than the sight of broken people.

All these authors except Pratchett make sure you understand what war costs. Martin is probably the most brutal, and his A Song of Ice and Fire series has characters getting raped, beaten, mutilated, tortured, killed left and right, deprived of their families, and dying meaningless deaths. You are never, ever allowed to forget what toll the war of kings is exacting on the helpless peasants of Westeros, since you are right in the middle of it.

Kay’s credo seems to be not only Bad Things Happen to Good People, but They Happen All The Time. Even his ‘lightest’ fantasy series, the Fionavar Tapestry, has the world grab hold of the kids come from Earth and shake them like play-toys. His later books are especially tragic in a sense of inevitability; there might have been a faint chance to stave off the conflict, but it’s too late now. And what is destroyed in those conflicts- a beloved country, good men and women, works of art- is fully mourned.

Pratchett’s books are lighter in this respect, again, but he pulls no punches when it comes to showing the evils of religion (Small Gods) or stupidity (Monstrous Regiment). In fact, his books tend to get more brutal as they go along, and trace things back to stupidity’s fault. “And no one has the right to be stupid,” as he says in his latest book.

Berg’s books are not for the faint of heart. Slavery, branding, starvation, torture, grief, frantic searching, more torture, torture of friends, betrayal, rape, helpless grief, death after death after death- she resembles Martin, though in a way it’s even more personal because a lot of it happens to Seyonne, who tells the story in first-person. I actually had to put the second book down a few times, because it was that intense.

Brust does torture in a very spare way. Even when Vlad is close to death, you don’t actually get a lot of insight into it; it’s more in the way that he suddenly screams, when he never does, that make shivers run up and down my spine.

Other fantasies tend to skip over torture scenes, or describe them only as happening to the hero. Pussies.

3) Wit.

Do you realize how few fantasy heroes outthink their opponents? They are better because of superior magical firestorms that get tedious to read about (yes, I’m looking at you, Jordan and Goodkind), or they’re Mystically Chosen by Destiny (yes, I’m looking at you, Lynn Flewelling), or they have the right set of genitals (yes, I’m looking at you, Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley and Anne McCaffrey).

So it’s refreshing that all of my favorite authors bring wit into their stories, and have characters who are actually intelligent. In Martin’s case, of course, his intelligent characters tend to mostly cause havoc, but when the other side can’t outthink them, don’t they deserve all they get? (All right, so of course not, because he always has at least one voice on each side deserving of your sympathy, but sometimes it feels like it).

Brust’s Vlad is devoted to outthinking his opponents. Draegarans, the powerful non-humans who surround him and live for thousands of years, often still can’t match the way his mind puts the puzzle pieces together. And he often solves the mystery at the heart of the Vlad stories, or at least helps crack it open.

Seyonne- well, let’s just say that it’s been a long time since I’ve read anyone like Berg’s hero, with his endearing mix of right and wrong decisions, so that sometimes he does something that seems stupid but turns up intelligent, or something that seems brilliant and is then exploded as moronic.

Pratchett’s wit is all over the place, of course, and his viewpoint characters often think rings around the stupid ones even if they keep their mouths shut.

Kay has dazzlingly clever characters, although he’s different in quite often keeping us out of their heads and making us figure out what went on later. It doesn’t matter, though. His intrigue is very good, and his characters deserve to live because They Are Smarter Than You. And when they don’t, it’s very, very hard to take.

4) A strong sense of setting.

I want to go to these places and see them. So few fantasies do that- and usually, it’s not because the author lacks descriptive language, it’s because the author is content describing things like clothes instead of the setting (yes, I’m talking to you again, Lynn Flewelling).

Kay’s worlds are fucking real. It’s quite often the setting that is the character with him, at least in the sense of containing all these marvelous people and being the reason they fight. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, based on medieval Spain, the Asharites (= Moors) are willing to fight for their country, Al-Rassan, even though it’s fallen in glory, because they love it so much. The Jaddites (= Christians) are also willing to fight, because the entire peninsula was once theirs, and they will win if they have to drive the Asharites into the sea. Kay makes you see both sides, which is one of the wonderful things about him.

Martin’s Westeros is also real, the most real of the medieval-based worlds I’ve run across. The war in other fantasies feels false compared to his, just a convenience that intrudes whenever the author wants it to. Martin lets the war disrupt trade and make children have to learn young how to kill. The people are affected all the time by the land they live in.

Pratchett just keeps getting better and better with his description. Borogravia, the setting of his latest, Monstrous Regiment, is a new place for him, but he made me see how the war had changed it and why it had to be stopped. It’s a place slowly grinding to a halt, as all the young men die in the war and refugees flee the fields. Stopping the war becomes a true necessity for Borogravia, not just part of the book’s plot.

Berg excels in describing both the natural and the supernatural world. And although she has one forested country in her world, she spends surprisingly little time in it; a lot of her scenes come straight from the desert or the heart of winter in a frozen world. And all the complications of traveling there, such as lack of water, show up to make Seyonne’s and Aleksander’s lives (more) difficult.

Brust’s Draegara is often sparsely described. What makes it build up, layer by layer, are all the casual mentions he tosses off in the middle of something else, like this being the way a certain animal acts or this being a cliff once upon a time before it fell into the sea. After nine Vlad books and fourteen books altogether set in Vlad’s world, I feel I know Draegara very, very well, even though very few if any of the books come with a map.

Well, that certainly got longer than I expected. Wonderfully fun, though.