The OF Blog: A fantasy list for those who don't want to stop at second base, but who'd rather hit a grand slam and then score continuously or something

Monday, August 17, 2009

A fantasy list for those who don't want to stop at second base, but who'd rather hit a grand slam and then score continuously or something

A week or so ago, the New Yorker had this list of "seven essential fantasy reads," books for those who've read the Tolkien and Lewises of the world and would like to sample the most genrerific of books. This list had as much depth to it as any garden-variety "I'm new to fantasy! What should I read?" recommendations post that clutter a plethora of SF/F message boards that cater to an epic/secondary-world fantasy-seeking/loving audience. Mark Newton posted his own list, found here, that seems oriented more toward those who didn't read Tolkien and/or Lewis as formative adolescent reads.

It's a good list, chock full of books that I would recommend to most here, but me being me, I'd like to create a list for those here who perhaps want to escape genre tropes or at least the overt marketing of such. The books mentioned below perhaps will be found in any other section of a bookstore but the SF/F one. Perhaps they won't even be found in the vicinity. But perhaps there'll be readers who love edgy "literary" stuff who want to see if speculative works can approach that. With that in mind, here are books that I would suggest to readers who are jaded on the genrerific and who are thinking "and now for something completely different":

1. Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - This is a tale that revolves around memory, personality, relationships...and comic books. And lots of other stuff. In some ways, this is my favorite Eco novel, in large part because it is much more "personal" than his other novels. Quite a few fiction boundaries are blurred here.

2. Steve Erickson, Arc d'X - Any book that can make Thomas Jefferson into a frightful mo'fo and can tell it with panache deserves a nod here, especially when the more "supernatural" elements come into play.

3. Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire machines of Doctor Hoffman - There are so many layers to this story that I cannot hope to discuss them all in 2-3 sentences. Suffice to say that this is some weird shit that's written in such a way as to make the illusions all the more "real" feeling for the reader.

4. Michael Cisco, The San Veneficio Canon - There are elements of horror and mystification to be found in this omnibus of two short novels. Cisco blurs the boundaries between the "real" and "unreal" to create an eerie work that is haunting long after the final page is read and the book closed.

5. José Saramago, Blindness - Terrifying. The meanings of blindness are such as to create images that seem to burn a ghost image into the retinas. But this story, dependent upon Saramago's unique writing style, makes for something remarkable to behold.

6. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves - One of the best horror/postmodern/poststructuralist/puzzle novels that I have ever read. Like the house that's explored, the book's insides are much larger in scope than its exterior.

7. Roberto Bolaño, 2666 - Depending on the reader's attitudes, this is either a great commentary on life and literature at the turn of the 21st century, or it is one of the most devastating SF novels ever written. It depends on your point of view and evidence for both is provided in this novel and in Bolaño's other writings. For this alone (helps that the narratives are kickass), this novel deserves a place here.

Also considered:

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciónes

Gene Wolfe, Latro in the Mist (omnibus)

Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

Zoran Živković, Impossible Stories

Milorad Pavić, Second Body

Brian Evenson, The Wavering Knife

Jeff VanderMeer, City of Saints and Madmen

Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan's Tale (duology)

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman (graphic novel series)

Chris Adrian, The Children's Hospital

Salvador Plascencia, The People of Paper

John Crowley, The Ægypt novels

What about you? What are your "essential" reads and why are these "essential"?


Matt Keeley said...

I like this list, or think I do, though of the books on it, I've only read 2666. I do, however, own the Erickson, the Cisco, the Eco, and the Danielweski. I don't own anything by Angela Carter, but at least I feel decently guilty about this.

The choice of Mysterious Flame rather surprises me; as Eco's last few novels haven't been terribly popular or well-received. And Erickson and Cisco are fairly obscure. Arc d'X isn't even in print anymore.

Given the nature of the list, I'm surprised nothing by Italo Calvino made the "Also Considered" list. Also glad to see Against the Day there - I think it's underrated.

Other suggestions: Adolfo Bioy Casares - The Invention of Morel
Haruki Murakami - The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Anonymous said...


1. Blade of Tyshalle, Matthew
Stover - An action-driven adventure. A study of epic fantasy. An edgy literary novel. No other genre book has had more of an impact on me than Stover's masterwork.

2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell - To be human is to love. And to destroy. And love. Mitchell is as good a stylist as you'll read, and his ability to develop different voices is uncanny.

3. Sun Cycle, Gene Wolfe - Obvious pick. I could say a lot of things, but for now I'll just say that Wolfe is the best world-builder I've read. I feel like I've seen the landscapes that Severian and Silk have walked with my own eyes.

4. A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin - a pseudo-medieval soap opera. Martin is one of the best storytellers I've read. Martin is one of the best writers I've read.

5. The Sandman, Neil Gaiman - still haven't read a comic book or series that's gripped me like Gaiman's world of horror, myth, and every day dreams and drama.

6. Gormenghast, Peake - this ain't Tolkien.

7. Lord of the Rings, Tolkien - this ain't Peake.

- Zach H

Cheryl said...

Mythago Wood - Robert Holdstock

The Course of the Heart - M. John Harrison

The Anubis Gates - Tim Powers

Oliver said...

Seven essential texts is quite few, so I'll narrow this a bit: Seven works that are essential for the fantastic (in the meaning of Roger Caillois fantastique: The reality is torn and the supernatural is leaking in). Each story invokes lots of sense of wonder & is suspence-packed.

1. Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles. The language is absolutely befuddling. It also uses strange images.

2. Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I like how Murakami mixes japanese myths and postmodern style. The plot is superbly constructed.

3. Russell Hoban, Amaryllis Night and Day. A tragicomical story with graceful flowing languages. I especially like how dream and reality blends.

4. Henry James, The Turning of the Screw. Todorov-fantasy par excellence.

5. Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis. Mixes the bizarre and the ordinary in a unique way.

6. Algernon Blackwood, The Willows. Again the language and the subtlety of the horror.

7. Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves. The extreme use of typographic possibilities, the blending of erzählebenen and, well, the horror.


marco said...

Given this very expansive understanding of fantasy, I don't think it is possible to select just seven "essentials"; my list comprises therefore works by authors not already mentioned by others.
I'm not particularly good at synthesizing merits and characteristics in a couple of lines, so I'll simply say that each one is a masterpiece and direct the curious to google and wikipedia.

Calvino, Italo - Le città invisibili

Gardner, John - Grendel

Harris, Wilson - The Carnival Trilogy

Jackson, Shirley - We Have Always
Lived in The Castle

Lindsay, David - A Voyage to Arcturus

Rulfo, Juan - Pedro Paramo

Tournier, Alain - Le Roi des Aulnes

Among works and authors cites I see many favourites ( Schulz, Murakami, Sandman ) but David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas simply cannot be recommended enough.

Matt Keeley said...

How did I forget to mention Cloud Atlas? I was just discussing it with a friend the other day. Fine fine book.

marco said...

Le Roi des Aulnes has been written by MICHEL Tournier (not Alain; I've probably mixed him with Alain-Fournier, the author of Le Grand Meaulnes).

marco said...

Another batch of 7:

Banks, Iain - The Bridge
Garner, Alan - Thursbitch
Gray, Alasdair - Lanark
Hawthorne,Nathanael - The Marble Faun
Hoffmann, E.T.A. - Der Sandmann
Link, Kelly - Magic for Beginners
O'Brien, Flann - The Third Policeman

J m mcdermott said...

I thought the NYer list was... embarassing.

Look, each of these authors is pretty good, at least, and a couple (GGK, for instance) are as good as it gets.

But, the thing about the list that really bugged me was it was six white guys and only one woman.

If we want readers to actually get a sense of the diversity that is happening, it takes only a moment to go one step farther and reach out to writers who are arguably better than a lot of the people on the list, just as accessible, and who each come with a cultural perspective that isn't exactly like the other ones. Our increasingly diverse cultural heritage and cultural influences are related to our constant splintering off into subgenre after subgenre.

Your list is far better, Larry, and I wish the NYer asked you instead of the person they did ask. But, don't you kind of think part of what makes your list better is the cultural diversity?

I mean, this isn't to say that a list of all 7 white guys couldn't be acceptibly representative of all fiction (or, in this case 6 white guys and one woman). It's to say that any seven you choose is going to be limiting and broken, anyway. And, applying diversity doesn't even remotely make it hard to find quality books that meet the stated goals of the list.

Anyway... To hook 'em young and keep 'em, with more diversity of ethnicity!

1) Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett
2) Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
3) Kindred by Octavia Butler
4) The Etched City by K. J. Parker
5) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murikami
6) Lavinia by Ursula K LeGuinn
7) In The Forest of Forgetting by Theodora Goss

I could come up with a more diverse list, but I think - for a young reader - it would be difficult not to find something that hooks 'em here. And, each of these writers is one of the best at what they do. Each comes from a very different cultural perspective (if you think Canada, US, Australia, and UK each count as different...).

Larry Nolen said...


I'm going to take your comment and spin it off into a separate post, as I think it deserves more discussion than what might follow here.

Cheryl said...

JM: I think you meant KJ Bishop, but otherwise very good point.

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