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.
What did you recently finish reading? 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels, by Nick Rennison, review coming up tomorrow on the blog. Before that, it was volume 19 of Ultimate Spider-man, which I’m still working my way through. It was a pretty good volume.
What are you currently reading? Most of the things I was reading last time I posted this, still, and Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse. I heard some bad things about it, which was sad after how much I loved The Mad Scientist’s Daughter, but actually I’m enjoying it. I’m not far into it, but the narration is fun.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Well, some more Spider-man, probably. Also Red Sonja vol. 1, which I got an ARC of via Netgalley this week. I’m curious about Red Sonja, she’s not a character I’ve actually read anything about, but I have heard about her. So this should be interesting. After that, I’m thinking of The Phoenix and the Mirror, by Avram Davidson.
None bought! Some ARCs. But I’m gonna start saving this kind of thing for Saturday and Stacking the Shelves.
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!
This week has involved a bit of a spree, because of Christmas money and my sister being a terrible influence. She will try and claim it’s the other way round, but that’s lies and slander. Anyway, as you might’ve realised, it’s time for Tynga’s Reviews’ Stacking the Shelves. I would like to take this moment to note that we’re the 4th January and I haven’t yet bought any books in 2014. That’s big stuff for me.
Anyway, breaking these down into sections just for ease…
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…
What did you recently finish reading?
The last thing was Ironskin (Tina Connolly), and before that, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Alan Bradley). I’m slowly creeping up on getting my list cleared, even if I keep starting new books a bit too often still…
What are you currently reading? Midnight Robber (Nalo Hopkinson). The Creole narration (I think I’m right in saying it’s Creole, but I found conflicting information when I googled, so correct me if I’m wrong!) is really fascinating; it’s a bit tough for me at first, but the more I read, the easier it becomes. I think Hopkinson was very inventive in transplanting those West African traditions into a SF world. It feels different than pretty much anything else I’ve ever read.
I’m also reading Natural-Born Cyborgs (Andy Clark), which is quite interesting, but begins to lose me whenever he gets too scientific. I need to stop reading it when I’m less than fully alert! And slightly behind that in the queue, there’s Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni, which I should be finishing soon, and Melissa Scott’s Shadow Man. Basically, as usual, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.
What do you think you’ll read next?
Once I’ve finished those two, I think I’ll read the next Flavia de Luce book, since I’ve so nearly caught up to the ARC, so that’ll be Speaking from Among the Bones. Then I think I might make an effort to finish Republic of Thieves (Scott Lynch), before me mother and partner both expire waiting. The plan is to work mostly on ARCs I already have in progress, this month, I think. I’m thinking maybe also The Darwin Elevator (Jason M. Hough), etc.
Books acquired: There’s been enough acquired with Christmas money that I think my Stacking the Shelves entry for this week will just have to be edited highlights… Examples are Carl Sagan’s Cosmos (because Carl Sagan!) and Anna Cowan’s Untamed, after reading lots of fascinating reviews about it. It sounds deeply problematic in some ways, but also like it pushes on the boundaries of genre. I like my Regency romances, I confess, though Georgette Heyer can’t be beaten in my view; Untamed sounds like it adds some LGBT issues to the mix. Two words: crossdressing duke. I’m looking forward to getting round to that one.
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!