100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels, Nick Rennison, Stephen E. Andrews
This is a pretty good whistle-stop tour of some important, influential, or particularly interesting fantasy novels. I’ve got two pages in my notebook scrawled full of books to try now, and reminders of stuff I want to go back to. It’s a very accessible little book; it begins with an essay about the origins of fantasy, includes a glossary of various terms which can get confusing (the differences between sub-genres, for example) and a lot of extra suggestions after each book for further reading.
Normally, this sort of book doesn’t interest me much because they always pick the same novels. Well, this one had a fair amount of the staples on it — Tolkien, of course, C.S. Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, Lewis Carroll, Michael Moorcock — but it did have some others which surprised me — Megan Lindholm, for example, listed under that name and not as Robin Hobb — and some pretty recent ones too. It doesn’t claim to show us the best of fantasy fiction, which is a good plan, to my mind — only books which are worth reading.
Not exactly groundbreaking, but worth a flick through at least. Excuse me, I’m off to look up some ebook prices.
The reviews for The Testament of Mary are pretty much the spread I would expect — some people viewing it as a literary work, some as deliberately heretical trash, some seeing it as written just to shock, etc. I read it for more or less the same reasons I read Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: because I’m curious, because I’m okay with questioning things that I have or have had faith in. (Ask me which on any given day and I’ll be able to give you specifics.)
I think it’s an honest and earnest attempt to think about Mary as a person, not as the sort of demi-goddess we’ve made of her. To think of her as a woman, a mother, and as a mortal, as someone of quiet faith and love for her son. Tóibín’s Mary isn’t a believer, really; she doesn’t see what Jesus does as proof of miracles, she’s not exactly sceptical but is concerned about what is done to Lazarus, she doesn’t seem to believe he’s the son of God. She resists the urge to find meaning in what’s done to him. She’s even human enough to leave the site of the crucifixion to save her own life.
The book is her telling her story, quietly, with certainty, knowing it won’t survive or rival the story Jesus’ followers want to tell — i.e. what we know as the Gospels — but because she needs to voice her truth. Parts of the story didn’t really work well for me, the semi-imprisonment she has where she’s looked after by Jesus’ disciples, for example, but overall I found it moving — in a quiet, understated way. These are the emotions of a woman who has lost her son, quiet and traumatised, not the mother of a martyr, a saviour. Which is fine and worthy, from my point of view, but I think other people object to that.
(Particularly, people keep saying that Tóibín is writing Mary using modern psychology. That’s… somewhat true, but I think people in times past still had the same feelings — depression, PTSD, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc — and just understood them differently. Mary never talks about Freud or anything, so I think that’s not really an issue.)
It’s a very slim book, and I’m not entirely sure why it was shortlisted for the Man Booker: it’s not that powerful a story, though it has its moments. But it is worth a read if the idea interests you — it certainly won’t take too long.
The Gutenberg Revolution is a really easy read, with a pretty chatty style that doesn’t undermine the material, but does make it easy to digest. I read it on the train — like some other people I see reviewing it, actually — and it was interesting enough to hold my attention from start (in Cardiff Central) to finish (somewhere between London and Lille).
It begins by exploring the man who invented moveable type, Johann Gutenberg, and the context he was born into and grew up in. It isn’t all about Gutenberg specifically, though: it talks about the people he was involved with, or could’ve been involved with, in the endeavour — and most of all, about the revolution that was printing and how it became a force for social change, particularly the Reformation. There’s quite a good bit about Martin Luther, as well as some other interesting titbits about how the printing press went on to be used. There’s a bit about Caxton, which is particularly interesting to me given my interest in Arthuriana (even if Sir Thomas Malory is far from my favourite).
John Man’s enthusiasm for the subject comes through perfectly, and I like that he chose a type setting (Poliphilis) for the book related to one of the stories he wanted to tell. It’s a pretty clear and easy to read font from my point of view, though I’m not sure how it’d be for someone with sight problems. Still, I enjoyed it — the book as a whole, of course, but also this specific font.
A Hole in the World isn’t a very mature story, and the writer has a long way to go, but I did find it pretty fun all the same. I loved the set of friendships going on between characters, the fact that not everyone had to be paired up, the fact that Bianca and Scotty are best friends and say “I love you”… That aspect of it made the story feel more mature than it could have done, because it wasn’t all about Bianca and Alexandra, and while it has a happy ending, it’s not all wish fulfillment. People get hurt along the way.
Aspects that felt immature were the focus on things like iPods and brand names, naming specific songs, etc. It made it very much of its moment: it’s not a story that will be timeless. The writing style itself needs sharpening up, and a good editor could probably transform it. And then there’s obviously the age of the characters — I’m a bit past giggling and “ommggg you have a cruuuush”, or I’d like to think so, at least.
But it’s still a fun little adventure story, and definitely worth the 77p I spent on it. It’d be 2/5 stars for technical merit alone, at best, but I enjoyed reading it. Three stars!
I came across this because of Amal El-Mohtar’s NPR review; the idea of a book in dialogue with Tolkien, by one of the women around him who he encouraged and listened to, definitely appealed: I think just recently I was asking if anyone’s written anything about Tolkien’s female students, about whom I know very little except that I’m sure I have been told they existed. (Time for a woman to write a biography of Tolkien? Move over, Humphrey Carpenter, Tom Shippey?)
And this book delivered. It is rather slight — it’s short, and on first glance, rather fable-like. Naomi Mitchison resisted any urge to insist on a moral, though: while there are religious people in the story, and Hella’s travelling light seems a virtue in her, there are good people who struggle with faith, good dragons who keep out of the gods’ way, and though for a while it looks as though there might be a moral about Christianity in there, then there’s also a bit of a wry look at the church in Constantinople, and it ends with some more Norse mythology. I don’t think she honestly ever pushes any moral except finding your way through life and being good to people and creatures, and in the meantime she has an intriguing wander through different cultures and traditions.
Mitchison is a lot less sure than Tolkien about the period and the people she wants to write about, I think. Tolkien talked about creating “a mythology for England”, and I’ve argued elsewhere that Susan Cooper succeeds, but I don’t think Mitchison is as rooted in a place, an idea. Like her protagonist, she’s willing to wander. I wonder what a difference it’d have made to genre fiction now if Mitchison had a greater role, and Tolkien a lesser? Maybe we’d have less to worry about from the constant onslaught of medieval European fantasy.
It won’t scratch the same itch as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, for sure. It’s a different sort of story — if you’re a fan of Le Guin, perhaps, it’s more like the stories of Earthsea. Or it’s like a more fantastical, more female Rosemary Sutcliff. Don’t read it for The Hobbit 2.0 — it’s something all its own.
Oh, and it can be quite amusing, too: Dragon Economics 101…
I wasn’t sure about Ironskin at all when I initially picked it up. I’d seen the comparisons to Beauty and the Beast, and I knew it was based somewhat on Jane Eyre. I don’t generally like stories based on classic novels, and Jane Eyre is one of my favourites, but as I got into this, I rather liked it. It doesn’t follow the novel too closely, doesn’t break its own logic to fit the novel’s plotline; it makes and sustains a world of its own. There are parallels, more than similarities, if that distinction makes sense.
I enjoyed the first half of Ironskin quite a lot; I know other people found it slow, but I enjoyed that. The romance is, of course, quite closely parallel with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, so I can’t really fault it for the brevity of that aspect. It isn’t quite as compelling as the original, though.
Towards the last third or so of the book, it gained a lot of momentum and became a much more important (in the sense of far reaching consequences for the world) story. And… I didn’t like that so much. Sometimes you get sick of people saving the world — I wanted the story of Jane saving herself, Dorie and Edward, not the world. I wanted it to end on a more personal note.
The strength Jane finds isn’t a bad thing, but the story just didn’t take a direction I was interested in. The high drama of the last third after the post-war calm at the beginning didn’t work. I was prepared for an introspective story about recovery, from the beginning, and it became a story about war.
It’s a very interesting idea, and I enjoyed the fey lore and the set up. I don’t know if I’ll read more books in this series — my heart sank rather when it diverted almost completely from Jane Eyre. We’ll see!
At this point, I’ve elected not to take these books seriously at all, and just enjoy them for what they are without picking nits. After all, at least it features a curious, resourceful young girl who is interested in chemistry and forensics, who solves murders in a delightfully Blyton-esque way by getting herself all tangled up in them. Of course there’re problems with this… fetishisation of an old British country house and ~British spirit~*, etc, Flavia tampering with crime scenes, the nigh-on abusive behaviour of Flavia’s sisters (although that does seem to be developing, slowly, book by book, and might perhaps become more understandable later on).
No, nitpicking aside, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows is fun. How very like Flavia to try and prove the existence of Father Christmas by attempting to more or less glue him to the chimney pots. And there’s a touch more about her Aunt Felicity, and Dogger, which makes both of them more interesting characters. Well, I already found Dogger interesting, but I wasn’t sure what the point of Aunt Felicity was. Now… I think she and Flavia have more in common than we’ve yet seen.
The mystery itself is fairly perfunctory — the murder isn’t discovered until pretty much half-way through! I barely had time to get my head around the suspects before Flavia was getting attacked. It’s really less of a mystery series and more of a quirky detective series, mysteries to some extent optional.
Still, as I say, it’s fun — when I don’t take it seriously.
*British my foot. The De Luces of this series are very, very English, and that’s what Alan Bradley meant them to be. British is unnecessarily inclusive of the Welsh, Scots and Irish. There’s not a trace of any of those nationalities here.
Silver on the Tree combines all the best of the other books of the sequence: the magic, the genuine moments of terror and alarm, the weaving of legends and the everyday, the mysteries that leave you to wonder, the sense of place… And more than any of the others it combines both sadness and joy; in that, it’s the most adult of the sequence.
I especially enjoy little touches like Bran getting to meet Owain Glyndŵr; one thing I did miss was Barney not having more of a reaction to actually meeting King Arthur who he’s idolised since before the first page of the first book. I can’t remember having noticed it before, but that jarred me, this time. Also, I remember someone mentioning to me how much it bothered them that this book plays into the betrayal of a woman theme (as does The Dark is Rising, in the form of Maggie Barnes, “a sweet face” to lure people into the Dark). Thinking about it this time, I see their point, even though the White Rider is otherwise ambiguously gendered. It’s as if women can somehow hide their allegiance to the Dark behind womanly charms, where the men are immediately picked out (Mr Mitothin doesn’t fool Will for a moment; Maggie Barnes, however, has to act wickedly to get him to realise, and “Blodwen Rowlands” fools John entirely until the very end).
We do have some great female characters in these books — the Lady and Jane, mainly, with Will’s sisters, mother and aunt and other such minor characters — but it’s a bit nasty that the alluring side of the Dark is pretty unambiguously female.
Still, that’s not enough to ruin the books, and nor is it suggested as something all women could/would do. It’s just something that may bother you, particularly if you forget how old these books are.
I think I’ve ended my reviews of this book with this quotation before, but it’s still true. The book ends with a call to arms to all of us, to stop relying on anyone else to change the world and know that we are, alone, responsible for our own choices.
“For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.”
As usual, Tanya Huff’s stories collected in this ebook are fun; it’s a solid mix of fun and a more serious story. The title story (a sort of retelling of Tam Lin) was probably my least favourite. Since it’s a shortish collection (seven stories), I’ll review each story separately, albeit briefly.
‘A Choice of Endings’: I didn’t remember the character of Mrs. Ruth very well — I read Gate of Darkness, Circle of Light quite a while ago — but I enjoyed the story nonetheless. It’s always interesting when older women are the heroines of a story, you really don’t see it enough, and it was good to get into Mrs. Ruth’s head. And her antics are quite entertaining: she’s deadly with bottles of Tabasco sauce…
‘Finding Marcus’: One of Tanya Huff’s few first person stories, apparently, and narrated from the point of view of a dog — and she’s a cat person. I think she got the essential traits of a dog pretty well: that literally dogged loyalty and persistence which I think is one of the most lovely traits of a good dog. (I’m biased. My nan’s dog, in my childhood, was very dogged and loyal, and heaved his arthritis, tubby body up a step and along the hall to check on me while I curled up on my own in the front room, reading.) The story was pretty simple, but it worked well, even for being something Tanya Huff doesn’t do much.
‘He Said, Sidhe Said’: As I said, my least favourite of the collection. I just didn’t find it very remarkable. The various parallels to Tam Lin are clever, but it wasn’t absorbing for me.
‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’: I have a fairly ‘meh’ reaction to this one, too, for all that its seasonal. Or perhaps because it’s seasonal? I’m not good with seasonal. There’s only one Christmas-themed album I like, in music (Thea Gilmore’s Strange Communion), so maybe I’m the same about stories. It just didn’t grab me, anyway.
‘Tuesday Evenings, Six Thirty to Seven’: I liked this one. Again an older female heroine, and a very non-conventional Brownie troop. I thought that was kind of clever, and I enjoyed the Brown Owl’s attempts to adapt to them and to do her best by them. It was filled with a kind of tenderness toward the whole Brownie movement, too, which I can understand — I never was a Brownie, but I so wanted to be.
‘Under Summons’: I haven’t read Summon the Keeper yet, though I have it, but this story made perfect sense even without it. Loved the pissy cat and the helpful fish. It makes me want to hurry up and read the original series.
‘Word of Honour’: I’m not sure about the quality of the history detail around the events in this story, and the portrayal of the Templars, etc (my knowledge about Templars, such as it is, comes mostly from Assassin’s Creed). I didn’t find the story as emotional as Tanya Huff mentions she does in her introduction, but it is an enjoyable story and there are a couple of moments in it that did really get to me.
Normally, The Grey King would be my favourite of the five books that make up this sequence. Something about the setting in Wales, and Bran’s loneliness and arrogance, and of course the tie-in with Arthuriana, and the way that it begins to bring in some more moral ambiguity when John Rowlands questions the coldness at the heart of the Light. Somehow, I didn’t love it as much as usual this time — possibly because I’d just spent a lot of time debating the merits of Greenwitch with various people, and thus missed some of the stellar things about that book (more involvement of female characters, more mysteries like the various hauntings of Cornwall, contact with the Wild Magic) when reading this one, which is more straightforward in some ways. If you’ve read the series before, then there’s little mystery about who Bran is and what role he has to play.
Still, it’s a lovely book, with Susan Cooper’s usual understanding of people and lyrical way of describing things so that the sound of the words is an important part of the experience for me. The relationship between Owen and Bran, with that lovely section so near the end; the levels you can see, particularly depicting Owen and in the character of John; the touches of mystery there are like the issue of the Grey King himself — all of it is as wonderful as ever on what must be at least my tenth reread, and probably more than that.
And, of course, there’s Cafall — the courage and loyalty, and the heartbreak. That whole section brings a horrid lump to my throat every single time.