On Great Pagan Fantasy

mckinleyFantasy as a genre can be tad difficult to define. To paraphrase Wikipedia, a fantasy is any story which employs magic and/or “other supernatural phenomena” as a driving force of plot, theme or setting; and, like science fiction, fantasy tales are often set somewhere-other-than-here-and-now. Fantasy has something in the neighborhood of a dozen sub genres, depending on how one counts — high fantasy, epic fantasy, sword-and-sandal fantasy, feminist fantasy, eco-fantasy, dark fantasy, urban fantasy, et cetera and so on. It also mixes well with other genres; consider how many fantasy romances and magical mysteries are on the market.

Fantasy is a very Pagan-friendly genre. By its very definition, it contains elements which are of central importance to our communities. Pull nearly any fantasy novel off the shelf, and you will find polytheism, environmentalism, “alternative” and “mainstream” sexualities, gender (re)construction, fantastic creatures, magic, and I could go on.

While the genre itself may be Pagan-friendly, that is not the case with every individual title.* Quite a few books treat the Gods as jokes or caricatures, tart up the female characters for the sake of titillation, engage in gross stereotyping or — sorry — are just plain badly written.

By my definition, a good Pagan or Pagan-friendly fantasy is one which treats the Gods and their devotees respectfully, and incorporates spirituality fully into the culture. Ideally, such books also take a good hard look at gender construction and sexuality and environmental issues., as well. (I will try to stick as closely as possible here to “pure” fantasy, but romantic, mysterious and sf elements appear in some of these titles.) Here than are a few of my favorites.

The Age of Steam series by Devon Monk — composed of Dead IronTin Swift, and Cold Copper — is a magical steampunk adventure filled with shape shifters, cunning fae, witches, clockworks, and even a zombie or two. Monk makes excellent use of various Native American mythologies, and the fae of her books not the cutesy-wootsy Disney figures but the dangerous, alluring creatures of European lore.

The Books of Great Alta by Jane Yolen made my Goddess Spirituality list a few months ago. I’m including it again because Alta is one of those books that I think every Pagan should read. Really. Religious strife, Amazons, poems and songs, magic and prophecy, true love and filial devotion — this book has it all.

Chalice by Robin McKinley is the perfect book for those whose spirituality leans towards the elemental/animistic end of the spectrum. In the Willowlands, the Master and the Chalice are responsible for maintaining the balance between humans and the sentient land. When tragedy strikes, humble beekeeper Marisol becomes the new Chalice — and the new Master is a Priest of Fire who may not be entirely human anymore …. Stunningly beautiful language, magical world building, and characters to love.

The Elenium trilogy by David Eddings was one of the first epic fantasies that I read, way the heck back in my early teens. I could not resist the beautiful queen and her handsome knight on the cover. Turns out, the series is also home to a multitude of Gods and Goddesses. Child-Goddess Aphrael remains one of my favorite all-time fantasy characters.

Imaro by Charles Saunders is that rare fantasy with an African-inspired setting. The eponymous hero is an orphan and exile, shunned by his steppe-dwelling tribe. After saving that same tribe from the machinations of an evil sorcerer, he opts to seek his fortune elsewhere rather than remain with those who now accept him. As it turns out, evil sorcerers abound in this magical Africa, as do monsters, warlords, and beautiful, proud women. (This is the first in a projected five volume series, but only the first two books have been released, to date.)

The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne — composed of six novels and two short stories, so far — is an fun urban fantasy romp staring a two thousand year-old Druid and his Irish wolfhound companion. Plus his bartender-apprentice, a Hindu witch, Maenads, Irish Gods, Greek Gods, Roman Gods, fae, nature spirits, elementals, and the list goes on. Start with the first book, Hounded, and just keep going until you run out of books.

Natasha Hoar’s The Lost Souls series (The Stubborn Dead and The Ravenous Dead) stars gifted rescue medium Rachael Miller. Based in Vancouver (yes! an urban fantasy series set in Canada!), Rachel’s job is to help souls transition to the next plane; unfortunately, they sometimes need a bit of a push … or more than a push. I hope Hoar continues the series, as I want to find out what the heck the four Presences are that Rachel can channel, and how the magically-gifted, isolationist Atlanteans and Upper Coven fit into the larger fictional universe.

moonTyrant Moon by Elaine Corvidae** is a skillfully-written adventure that simultaneously touches upon and undermines every epic fantasy trope. There is the powerful wizard (Thraxis), the barbarian warrior (The Arrow That Flies the Farthest), the villain (Balthazar), the grand quest and the magical artifact. The wizard, though, is dying and oath-bound to never cause harm to another living being. The barbarian is a woman barely out of her teens, desperate to set right the evil she caused through her own fear. The villain is emotionally wounded and justified in his anger, though not in the lengths he goes to get his revenge. I lost myself in Corvidae’s world, and I can’t wait to go back again.

Rachel Pollack’s Unquenchable Fire is an impossible to categorize book; I think it gets classified as fantasy because there is no place else to put it. The setting is Poughkeepsie, decades after a radical spiritual awakening has utterly transformed American life. There are oracles and prophecies, walking dreams and storytellers, totems and ritual, benevolent and malevolent spirits, and much more. The scene with the Oracle atop the World Trade Center was enough to hook me. It is sadly out of print, but used copies are readily available.

The Vows and Honor series by Mercedes Lackey — composed of The OathboundOathbreakers, andOathblood, as well as numerous short stories — had tremendous influence on my teen self and the (adult) (Pagan) I became. A Star-Eyed Goddess, a talking wolf, a dark-skninned female warrior on a mission of revenge and rebirth, a beautiful blond sorceress, an ensouled sword — dang, but I loved these books. Quite a few of the short stories I wrote back then were thinly disguised fanfic. Highly recommended to Pagan teens.

Finally, there is Diane Duane’s The Young Wizards series, which has been unfairly compared to the Harry Potter books; beyond the fact that both feature teens learning magic, the two series have nothing in common. A noble shark, a whale wizard, sentient automobiles, parallel earths, aliens, Powers Divine, wow. These books made me cry; seriously, I dare anyone to read the last few chapters of So You Want To Be a Wizard or Deep Wizardry and not shed a tear. Imaginative, haunting and inspiring. Great reads for Pagan tweens, or adults in search of coming-of-age tales.

One last note: I polled folks on the Pagan Bookshelf page on FaceBook and several discussion lists for a few of their favorites, too. I haven’t read these, but the Emberverse series by SM Stirling, the Song of Eirren series by Edith Pattou, the Age of Five series by Trudi Canavan, and Hand of Isis by Jo Graham made their respective lists of great Pagan-friendly fantasies.

The above, of course, is just a partial list. I am sure that I missed some great Pagan and Pagan-friendly fantasies. Let me know what they are, ’cause I can’t wait to read them.


*In response to the popularity of the Harry Potter series, there has been an explosion of Christian fantasy; notable examples include Angel Eyes by Shannon Dittemore and A Wolf Story by James Byron Huggins. Needless to say, not Pagan-friendly.

** Corvidae’s steampunk/magical/romance fantasy The Sorceress’s Orc is pretty darn good, too — especially if you are looking for a mature heroine.


[Originally published here.]