This is not a list of recommendations, but a list of my personal favorites all in one place, so that I can look fondly at them and say, “Ah, my treasured gems!” These are stories with nostalgic value that have shaped my preferences and expectations throughout the years. I won’t even say they’re objectively the best, and I can’t say why other things that have also blown me away didn’t make it to this list. Sometimes, something is just special.
I suppose there is a general theme to the list. Mostly I look for ‘the human experience’ in a speculative setting, delivered with a lot of heart. I like earnest, bright, pop-py things that have one foot firmly dipped in grimmer stuff. If you know me you’ll know you can push grim quite far.
I admire a story that plants itself firmly between escapist fun and meaningful human insights, things that take us beyond the confines of the present reality and then ask us to reexamine what it means to be us. I like moods, emotions, atmosphere. I like tested loyalty, moral stands, and the unbreakable human spirit.
So here are my favorites, in the order that I discovered them:
The Legend of the Condor Heroes & The Return of the Condor Heroes
Not really my first wuxia experience, but my first Jin Yong. These two epic series set the standard with which I later judge all other epic adventures, even beyond the genre. I remember the box saying something along the line of ‘awe-inspiring, fantastical adventures and a very colorful cast of characters’, and that is exactly what it is. Lots of humanity. Lots of page-turning action. Lots of laughs and heartbreaks, scenery, locations, encounters, and puzzles and mysteries that span generations.
Tarzan pulls off the impossible: how in the world do you make a vine-swinging ape man not lame? Well, this is how. It also happens to touch upon all my favorite issues: identity, growing up, fitting in, and finding your place in the world. It even goes as far to ponder a bit on what it is to be human. There’s an earnest, bleeding heart at the core of the story, all the right substance wrapped up in poppy optimism. I’m not surprised it’s underrated. It’s too cartoon-y for adults, and maybe too serious for children. I was in the process of becoming an adult when I watched it, and it spoke to me on a personal level.
If I have to recommend a manga to someone who had never read one before, this is the one. If there is one manga I ever get to read in my life, this is the one. Rurouni Kenshin stays within the realm of formula pop, but eventually pushes its boundaries and goes the extra mile in the exploration of the human soul. Underlying the non-stop shounen sword action are themes of change, atonement, and forgiveness, all presented through clear, optimistic lenses of youthful idealism. The philosophy involved might be incredibly naive if you’re well beyond your teen years, but it’s a good kind of naive, a clean and complete journey that leaves you fully sated.
Spirited Away is the best thing I have ever seen and will ever see on screen. Maybe your first Ghibli is always special, but when something manages to capture the very essence of your childhood, it becomes extra special. I’ve never been lost in an abandoned theme park and chased by a gluttonous monster, or met a woman with a giant head and a spoiled giant baby, but somehow all of it feels familiar. Exciting, terrifying, dizzying, with moments of wonder when you have absolutely no clue what’s going on, endless lively nights and sleepy mornings and the wind and the water and the blend of the fantastical and the mundane. Somehow I’ve felt all this before. Maybe it is childhood, symbolically. It’s a story about being alive in the world and making sense of it, about evolving perspectives, and about the power of innate intuition: when you know things because you know.
You probably can’t appreciate The Silmarillion without having read The Lord of the Rings, so it’s perhaps a bit pretentious that this book is on the list and the Lord of the Rings isn’t. Ultimately, Tolkien is all about the loss of innocence, symbolized through the tragedy of fleeting, fading goodness of the world. The Lord of the Rings has beautiful moments scattered throughout where your heart is meant to be smitten; the Silmarillion is made purely of those moments. It’s a song, it’s an experience. It speaks of sublime beauty and the inevitable, irreversible loss, of things good, and things gone. Utterly breath-taking, deeply heart-breaking at the same time.
While we’re being pretentious, we might as well add a poetry book. I’ve bought lots of poetry collections in my life; I never actually read any of them except for this one. Maybe it’s not all that surprising. This one checks my two main boxes: a bit of humanity with a popular appeal. You see, people apparently take poetry seriously in the UK, so there’s this program where people call in and request poems to be read over the radio. This book collects the 100 most-requested poems, and because it’s a popular vote, it includes a bit of everything, across poets and genres and styles. There’s also a double dose of humanity in there. For every poem that made it to this list, someone somewhere telephoned a radio station and asked another human to read it to them, after which they became a dot in the overall statistics that eventually decided what got included. That’s quite a lot of someones somewhere, and when I read the collection, I can’t help wondering about all the other someones somewhere and what these particular words mean to them.
Now for a strange one. This is a very short shoujo series about a school that is divided into two warring camps: the white-uniformed ‘good’ students and the black-uniformed ‘bad’ students. People who choose not to wear uniforms, called ‘grays’, risk getting bullied. This premise usually isn’t my cup of tea, but Penguin Brothers makes the list because of one reason: Hina, the main character, who enters the scene as a new transfer student and starts to navigate the politics of her new environment. The most fascinating thing is the amount of intrigue you can pull off in fluff-mode. It’s a school after all, and shoujo to boot, so it ends up being quite harmless. Still, the whole thing moves forward with constant silent, explosive tension, driven mainly by Hina and her delightful sense of agency.
Avatar: the Last Airbender
Considering the universal praise it already gets, I don’t think there’s anything much I need to say for Avatar: the Last Airbender. This is proof that you can do everything at the same time and that you should try. You can be a thought-provoking family show, a thrilling epic fantasy adventure with amazing world-building, a faithful homage to martial arts and still be a tremendous amount of pure, goofy fun. I will be watching it again and again and again for the sheer joy of the journey. It empowers characters in a way that adult-oriented entertainment often fails to do. More stuff like this in the world, please.
Vlad Taltos: Jhereg & the rest
There’s cause to rejoice when you’re over 35 and manage to find something to add to your list of all-time favorites. Everything about this series that just happens to be right. Pop appeal with plenty of substance done with lots of sympathy and understanding of human nature? Yes, all that and beyond. There’s also a lot of ‘game’, which I like, kept mostly to the ‘fun’ side. There are moments of reflection, which I also like, kept completely non-judgmental. And there’s full emotion transparency, which I really, really like, kept brimming, un-bitter, and understated. It even does the first-person POV exactly how I think first-person POVs should be done. And did I mention hilarious? It’s all unpretentious self-deprecating little triumphs. Plot might be a bit messy at times, but who cares? I’ve never said this about anything else: the series as a whole has a personality, a worldview, a question, and maybe even a strange capacity to reflect on its own existence.