Monday, September 21, 2015

More Forgotten Fantasy Classics (with a couple of newer series you really need to read).

This is a continuation of my forgotten classics series (the first installment is linked here) , and it includes some more fantasy novels and series that seem to have fallen (undeservedly, in my opinion) off the cultural radar in recent years. I've tossed in some newer fantasy novels that I think are very good as well. If these entries lead anyone to read and enjoys a book or author they wouldn't otherwise have heard about, then I'll be very pleased.

1. Dragon Prince series (Dragon Prince, The Star Scroll, Sunrunner's Fire) by Melanie Rawn. Published between 1988-1990 by DAW books, these books were well reviewed and popular, and set the stage for a host of intrigue-heavy fantasy with large casts of characters who fall along a broad spectrum in terms of morality.

The story's desert environment doesn't feel like a quasi-Europe, the story has a lot of action, and while gender roles are pretty traditional, the women have agency and goals of their own and aren't just there for the men. The story even shows some of the men through a female gaze, which was unusual back in the 80s, even for female authors. And Rawn does a better job than most authors of her era at exploring the implication of living in a world with large, intelligent predators.

2. The Watergivers Trilogy (The Last Stormlord, Stormlord Rising, Stormlord's exile) by Glenda Larke. The author is Australian, which might be why these books aren't as well known in the US as they should be. They were published by Ace Books in the US between 2010-2011. Set in a secondary world, these novels focus on the power struggles within a society that relies on water-manipulating magic for survival. The core conflict centers around a base born boy who may be the last person alive with this talent and on his attempts to master his unreliable magic and to resist being manipulated.

The story is set in a culture that doesn't feel like it's based on anything that's simply lifted whole-cloth from our world, and the story's two main protagonists are both people of color. There are several pov characters, including some interesting women, and some LGBTQ characters, but it is not in any way an issue story.

3. Chosen of the Changeling duology (The Waterborn and The Blackgod) by Gregory Keyes. Published in 1996-1997, they've recently been reissued for kindle. The story focuses on Hezhi, a princess from a magical family. It contains many traditional fantasy elements, but the author's attention to world-building detail and his knowledge of linguistics and fencing, give this story a depth and authenticity many lack.

4. Rojan Dizon Trilogy (Fade to Black, Before the Fall, Last to Rise) by Francis Knight, published in 2013-2014 by Orbit books. A secondary world fantasy noire, the story's setting, the magic tech city of Mahala, is a bit reminiscent of Blade Runner. The city is ruled by priests and has a rigidly hierarchal class system. Among its many themes story explores outsider issues and the disconnect between the religion practiced by the privileged wealthy and the impoverished masses.

The reluctant hero (a snarky womanizer who must hide his magical talent) is evocative of many well-loved UF protagonists, but his costly magic and social ineptitude keeps him from ever approaching the wish fulfillment archetype. The pace is brisk and the twisty, turning plot keeps the reader wondering how the story will end.

5. Wayfarer Redemption series by Sarah Douglas. This consists of six books (Wayfarer Redemption, Starman, Sinner, Pilgrim, Crusader) that were published in the late 1990s by Harper. They are very popular in the author's home country of Australia, but they've never gotten the attention they deserve in the US. Unfortunately, Ms. Douglass passed away in 2011, which might be another reason they haven't been promoted as aggressively as they should be over here.

The novels meld elements of SF and fantasy, as they incorporate space travel, stargates, and demons known as Timekeepers, but it takes place in a pastoral, non industrial world When a plague of monsters threaten their homeland, a noblewoman and a military leader must learn the truth about the history of their world.

6. Villains by Necessity by Eve Forward. This stand-alone book was published in 1996 by Tom Doherty Associates. This humorous novel subverts many familiar tropes, as it centers around a band of traditional fantasy villains (an assassin, a thief, an evil sorceress, and a dark knight) who must save the world from a fatal imbalance after evil is banished.

As far as I can tell, Forward has only written one other novel (by this name, at least), Animist, which read like the start to a promising series that never materialized. It's a shame, because she is a good writer who has a knack for twisting familiar tropes.

7. In a similar vein, though written with a different style and execution, Grunts, by Mary Gentle. First published in the UK in 1992 by Bantam Press, it was reprinted in 1995 by Roc books. This satirical book takes place in a cliche-ridden fantasy world based on the basic D&D mode. The plot revolves around a band of orcs preparing for the last battle between good and evil, one they're destined to lose. Things change when they find an artifact that turns them mentally into 20th century US soldiers.

The book is filled with camp and over-the-top humor and references to tropes that should appeal to anyone who ever played fantasy games or simply got tired of tired rip offs of JRR Tolkien's works.

8. Vows and Honor trilogy (Oathbound, Oathbreakers, Oathblood) by Mercedes Lackey published in novel form between 1988-1998. These books tell the tale of Tarma and Kethry, who make a cameo appearance in at least one of her Heralds of Valdemar books. These books are unusual in fantasy, because they focus on the friendship between two female adventurers who are seeking to avenge the slaughter of Tarma's clan. It's fun to see a good old fashioned "mismatched" buddy S&S-style adventure fantasy told from a female perspective. And the acerbic "Need" is probably the coolest take I've seen on the sentient sword trope.

8. Alan Garner's the Weirdstone of Brisingamen is considered to be a children's novel, but it has plenty to offer adult fantasy fans too. It was well-received when it first came out, but fell into relative obscurity, perhaps because the author decided he didn't feel it was a very good book.

First published in 1960, this novel is based partially on a Cheshire legend tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan, who are staying with some friends while their parents are overseas. Susan owns a bracelet that contains the weirdstone of the title. The minions of the dark spirit Nastrond who, centuries before, had been defeated and banished by a powerful king, wants this item back.

9. Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy (Sheepfarmer's Daughter, Divided Allegiance, Oath of Gold), published in 1988-1989, were the first volumes in the Paksennarion series. It is fairly classic high fantasy, set in a quasi medieval world with elves, dwarves, and paladins. The story follows the character of Paks as she joins the army to flee an arranged marriage. This may be why it's faded from view in spite of being popular in its day--the Tolkien and D&D-inspired high fantasy of the 70s and 80s has largely run its course. But the excellent characterization and well-developed religious themes (unusual in a genre where characters often have the mindset of citizens of 20th century secular democracies) make it stand out from its peers. The author's military experience shows as well.

10. The Morgaine Cycle (The Gates of Ivrel, The Well of Shiuan, The Fires of Azeroth, Exile's Gate) by CJ Cherryh. Published by DAW books between 1978-1988. I discovered these on my parents' bookshelves when I was a kid, and they helped foster my lifelong love for speculative fiction. Strictly speaking, these are SF, as the author has stated that they are set in the same universe as her Union-Alliance novels. But the stories have a sword and sorcery/quest fantasy feel, and the characters travel on horseback for most of the series. CJ Cherryh is one of my favorite authors, and she was one of the first SFF writers to employ a closer, character-focused narrative style in SF and F.

Though Morgaine is the plot-driving character, the story is told through the narrative perspective of Vanye, a disgraced bastard. Outcast for accidentally killing his brother, he accepts food and shelter from Morgaine, and is bound to assist her in her quest to close the travel gates left behind by a star faring empire. The Gate of Ivrel is Cherryh's first novel, but the world building and characterization are phenomenal. Why these don't end up on any of those "best and influential SFF lists" is beyond me.

11. Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword. Published in 1954 by Abelard-Schuman (currently available in the US for Kindle from Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy. This is another fantasy novel  remember finding on my parent's bookshelves when I was a kid. Michael Moorcock declared The Broken Sword superior to Tolkien (though that's not saying a lot, since Moorcock isn't the biggest Tolkien fan in the universe), calling it “a fast-paced doom-drenched tragedy in which human heroism, love and ambition, manipulated by amoral gods, elves and trolls, led inevitably to tragic consequences.”

It was influenced by H. Rider Haggard’s 1891 Viking adventure The Saga of Eric Brighteyes. It's definitely worth a read if you'd like to spend some time with elves that aren't at all like the ones from most role playing games. It's a product of its time in that it's somewhat sexist, but still a good read.


  1. Dragon Prince was a favorite book of mine back in the '80s -- a great blend of fantasy and romance, with awesome worldbuilding, and a wonderfully original magic system. I remember a lot of discussion and reccing of this book back on RomEx, an area on GEnie where the RWA and a bunch of other romance readers and writers, plus a handful of non-romance writers, hung out.

    The Vows and Honor books were good too -- all the Tarma and Kethry stories, actually. Misty's another writer whose characterization and worldbuilding are excellent.


  2. I must be really old because I remember The Dragon Prince when it first came out. It was very-regarded by critics and readers at the time, a few even compared it to Dune. Wonder if it's still in print...

    IMO Mercedes Lackey's work has not aged well, though it still has its merits. I remember reading somewhere that George R. R. Martin said he wrote Gameof Thrones as a F-U to all that SoCal-inspired Society for Creative Anachronism type fantasy.

  3. Cobaltjade -- There are individual books by Lackey that I wouldn't want to reread, but plenty of her books, including many from the 80s and 90s, I still enjoy. It's a matter of taste, as with any other books. And if Mr. Martin is going to toss out ridiculous insults, at least he should get his facts straight. The SCA was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, not Southern California. :P

    Seriously, though, again, it's a matter of taste. I enjoy grim-and-gritty medievalish fantasies, but I also enjoy lighter, how-it-should've-been medievalish fantasies, assuming both are well written. It's one thing to have one's own personal tastes, but insulting the writers (and readers) who prefer something else is completely uncool IMO.


    1. I agree with you about Lackey's work. And while I can't read or recommend MZB anymore for other reasons (I assume GRRM is referring to her work, since she was so instrumental in the early SCA), I never saw anything terribly fluffy or idealized about her depictions of feudal societies. I think women had it even worse in Darkover than they do in Westernos, and even before I heard of all the nasty stuff with her and Breen, I actually got tired of all the rape and misogyny women had to deal with as Bradley's fantasy cultures inevitably degenerated into patriarchy.

      I get a bit tired of hearing about how the modern crop of grimdark writers invented dark, gritty fantasy and how fantasy was all chivalry and rainbow-farting unicorns before that. There was plenty of dark stuff in the 60s and 70s too, and even before. Heck, even Lackey's stuff had a pretty high body count, and she wasn't afraid to kill off protagonists.

  4. Great list! Just a heads up that I recently wrote a similar list:

    Six Amazingly Bizarre Sci-Fi & Fantasy Novels You’ve Never Heard Of

    Might be worth a read or link on your blog?

    Either way, keep up the awesome work!

    -Terry Ibele