Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Some Great Fantasy Novels or Series That Rarely Make Those "Must Read" Lists

The web is a great place for learning about books and authors, but sometimes it seems like there's a "rich get richer" element to the various "must read" and "best of" or "top" lists that get linked on various sites. The same books and authors we've heard of already tend to come up. So I thought I'd toss some books out there that were either well-liked in their day but have fallen off the cultural radar or had a cult following of sorts but never made it into the fantasy "mainstream" (whatever that might be for the genre). In order to keep this from being just a list of my own unsung favorites, I've been picking the brains of my fantasy-loving friends as well, and some of their suggestions are included. This is not a complete list by any means, and I've got many more titles I'd like to discuss, maybe in a future entry.

1. Deryni Rising and sequels, by Katherine Kurtz. Published by Ballantine Books in 1970, reissued by Ace books in 2004. This was the first book in her Deryni series, which was fairly popular with fantasy geeks in the 70s and early 80s, but even though she is credited with influencing authors like Guy Gavriel Kay and George RR Martin, this novel and series are rarely included on "recommended" or "Must Read" lists today.

Set in the fictitious kingdom of Gwynedd, the fantasy society Kurtz created is much closer to a historically accurate medieval setting than is typical in epic fantasy. The stories focus heavily on magic, intrigue, and politics as Prince Kelson seeks to learn the truth about the not-so-accidental death of his father, his own magical heritage, and to put down the plot to steal his throne by sorceress and pretender Carissa.

2. Tales of the Otori by Lian Hearn, Riverhead Books, 2003-2005. (Across the Nightengale Floor, Grass For His Pillow, Brilliance of the Moon). This story takes place in a world inspired by feudal Japan. The protagonist, Takeo, a member of a persecuted religious group, is nearly killed when his village is destroyed. He's saved by the Otori clan an falls into a world of intrigue, magic, and warfare.
This novel is actually fairly popular, but it doesn't seem to be well known in fantasy circles. It seems to be shelved with general fiction in bookstores, in spite of its magical elements and alternative world setting. The first book in the series takes an unusual approach to narrative viewpoint, with one point of view character being shown in first person, and the other in third

3. White Crow Sequence by Mary Gentle. First published in the UK by Bantam in 1990, it's not easy to find a paper version of these books in the US, aside from used books. Kindle editions of the series (Rats and Gargoyles, The Architecture of Desire, Left to His Own Devices, and White Crow).

This story is about Valentine the White Crow, a scholar-soldier who has fled from her suitor to a vast city at the centre of the world. The city's humans are ruled by an aristocracy of humanoid rats, which are themselves subject to immensely powerful gods who mostly sleep but are growing restless. Aided by various allies, Valentine must face the gods, defuse the conflict between humans and rats - and decide how she really feels about her suitor. Gentle writes beautifully, and her world and story are far from run-of-the-mill fantasy.

4. Jack Whyte's Dream of Eagles series, six books in all. Published between 1992 and 2005 by Forge books. It's the authors take on the Camelot legend. It's sometimes billed as historical fiction, but falls more into historical fantasy. He's a wonderful writer with a fabulous command of language and a penchant for researching to the nth degree. Want to know how to forge a sword using Dark Ages techniques? He's got it.

The series starts with the first person account of a character named Pubilus Varrus as he retells his own history and that of the Roman withdrawal from Britain, but new characters narrate the later books in the series, which ends with the fall of Camelot.

5. The Witcher Series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Not actually novels, the first book in this series was originally published as a collection of five short stories by Wiedźmin, in 1990. Four of the five have since been translated from Polish released in an English-language edition, The Last Wish in 2008. Other story collections in the series include The Blood of Elves, Sword of Destiny, and Baptism of Fire.

Many Americans were introduced to Sapkowski's world and character via the video games by this name. The stories center around the character of Geralt, a monster hunter struggling to maintain his own ethics while operating in a very "gray" universe that should appeal to people who like darker fantasy. The stories are very influenced by the legends and mythology of Eastern Europe and are filled with subtle humor.

6. Lighthouse Duology (Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone) by Carol Berg, published in 2008, 2009 by Roc books. This story takes place in a fairly typical early-renaissance sans gunpowder fantasy world, but the writing and characterization are phenomenal in my opinion. The protagonist is a rebellious mage who has been hiding from his family for more than a decade, which is a big deal, because in this world, magi are pampered chattel, controlled by their families and expected to live by rigid set of rules. His situation is complicated by a strange malady that's afflicted him since boyhood, which he self medicates with a forbidden magical ritual that is as addictive as it is agonizing.

The story has a slower start than is typical for modern fantasy, but the author introduces information about the world and the protagonist's situation in a way that keeps the reader guessing until the end. I think it should appeal to fans of writers like Robin Hobb, but it has a tone and style that's all its own.

7. The Book of Words Trilogy by J.V. Jones (The Baker's Boy, A Man Betrayed, Master and Fool). Published by Aspect Books in 1995-1996. The story centers on the adventures of a young woman who refuses to be a pawn in a political marriage and an apprentice baker who has powerful but uncontrolled magical abilities, and it incorporates many familiar fantasy tropes--evil twins, scheming sorcerers, and idealistic knights. But the world building, dialog, and intrigue elevate it beyond run of the mill fantasy. A fun read. The paper book appears to be out of print, but it's still available as a kindle edition.

 8. Tamir Triad by Lynn Flewelling (The Bone Doll's Twin, Hidden Warrior, The Oracle's Queen). These novels take place in the same world (in the land of Skala) as her long-running Nightrunner series, but centuries earlier. They tell the story of Tamir, Skala's greatest Queen, who was magically disguised as a boy at birth in order to hide her from her Usurping uncle. Although the novel uses "prophecy" and "chosen one" tropes, it handles them an interesting perspective--the cost of assuring that they come to fruition.

Though there are several viewpoint characters, Flewelling focuses on the character of "Tobin," who is a shy, lonely, and somewhat peculiar boy who is haunted by the ghost of his twin brother. Flewelling writes compelling and fascinating characters, and the ones in this book have stayed with me longer than most. The main flaw (one I didn't not think so much about the first time I read it), is she missed an opportunity to explore the issues faced by transgender children and teens in more depth.

9. Barry Hughart.  The Bridge of Birds, Del Rey, 1984.  It's a novel of ancient China that never was - but ought to have been.  There are two sequels ( Eight Skilled Gentlemen and The Story of The Stone), but this novel stands alone with no trouble at all.  When the children of his village are afflicted with a mysterious plague, Number Ten Ox heads to the city and recruits a sage to help find a cure, and together they go on a quest. Along the way, they discover they are stuck in the middle of a plot by the Heavenly Emperor of Jade himself.

The book is written in a lyrical, fairy tale style that should delight lovers of classics like The Princess Bride and The Last Unicorn.

10. A Crown of Stars Series by Kate Elliott: This seven book series (starting with King's Dragon) was published between 1997-2006 by DAW books. It is set in the fictitious land of Novaria, and story follows the stories of two young adults, Alain and Liath, as they are drawn into the war that starts when their home is invaded by an inhuman race called the Eika, who had nearly destroyed the world more than 2000 years before.

The author based her world and cultures on real-world medieval kingdoms. The excellent writing and epic scale of the conflict should appeal to fans of Tolkien and George RR Martin.

11. The Witch World series by Andre Norton (first novel Witch World, 1963). Andre Norton was a brilliant writer of both SF and F (the first woman to be awarded the SFWA's Damon night Memorial Grand Master status). and for reasons unknown, she seems to have fallen off the cultural radar in SF and F circles and her books are rarely included on the lists of classics. It's possibly because she was such a prolific writer that no one book or series stands above the others. She was a consummate world builder who often melded SF and F elements. This could also be a reason why her work is often overlooked--people aren't always sure where to categorize it. She also was one of the first speculative fiction writers to include LGBT characters in her work.

Magic is considered to be the sole property of women in this world, and witches lose their powers if they have sex, but the male protagonist has some magical ability, and when he marries a witch woman, both their powers are amplified. This creates some problems with the society's rather conservative ruling caste.

The next installment in this series is available here:

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