Sunday, February 22, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (B)

Last week after doing the A's I promised you the B's, so here they are.

I'll kick it off with Clive Barker. Barker is better recognised as a horror author than a fantasy one, and even his best known fantasy works (Weaveworld and Imajica), tend to be more classified as dark fantasy. Clive Barker actually began his career as a film director in the 70's (something that he still dabbles in today) and only had his first book, collections of short horror stories published in The Books of Blood in the mid '80's. He followed that up with a number of novels, one of which; The Hellhound Heart, became the film Hellraiser (directed by Barker as he felt other screen adaptations of his work had not done them justice). At about the same time Hellraiser hit screens, he also published one of his best known works, Weaveworld. Barker is still writing and working in films, although most of his work in both mediums tends to be more horror than fantasy related, the novel Imajica is one notable exception.

Even in 1987 it was hard to find anything particularly unique or ground breaking in fantasy. That's what Weaveworld is, though. Once people realised it wasn't a horror novel, despite the author's reputation, it made it's way into the read lists of fantasy followers, it also got a fair bit of popularity as a mainstream novel. I haven't seen another story quite like it. It concerns the Seerkind, and how in their attempts to keep themselves and their people hidden from the non magical world which they called The Kingdom of the Cuckoo, they created a world called The Fugue, and wove it into a rug. An entire magical world contained within the weave of a hidden carpet. They're hiding from an avenging angel that they call The Scourge, who seeks to exterminate them. Two young people; Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parish, come in contact with the rug ,and are then drawn into a mad and dangerous adventure, both in and out of The Fugue, in which they are pursued by The Scourge, the ruthless sorceress Immacolata and the charismatic, but venal salesman Shadwell.

It's not just the idea, which is extraordinary, that sets Weaveworld apart from so many other works, but Barker's prose, which can be achingly beautiful and otherworldly all at the same time. His conception of faerie (which is really what The Fugue is), was so real, and at times I wondered if Barker was actually writing down a dream he'd had. It was fittingly nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1988 (it lost out to Ken Grimwood's equally astonishing Replay, that must have been a very strong year), and was both a commercial and critical success.

Further and related reading: Clive Barker has a fairly extensive catalogue, although only Weaveworld, Imajica and possibly The Thief of Always (written for younger readers, but also intended to be cross generational in appeal), are fantasy, and even they contain as many horror elements as they do fantasy ones. The rest of his work is largely horror, and none of it relates to Weaveworld, which is a standalone novel. I can't think of anything else that contains a vision like Barker's of the world within the carpet. There is Terry Pratchett's The Carpet People, but that's about a race of people so small that their world is a carpet, not a people that wove their world into one. Raymond Feist's foray into dark fantasy produced Faerie Tale, which has a similar feel to Weaveworld at times, although it tends to remind me more of Stephen King. Tad Williams has a different look at a fairy world in his standalone The War of the Flowers, and C.S Lewis used a similar concept of entering a world other than our own through mundane objects like wardrobes and paintings in his Narnia series. It's also hard to go past Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books for brilliant prose and a mind bending vision.

L. Frank Baum (the L stands for Lyman) May 15, 1856 - May 6, 1919. Baum had a rather chequered career, working as a poultry farmer, operating a theater, storekeeper, journalist and salesman, before achieving immortality as the author of a much loved children's book in 1900 with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He had published plenty during the years when he made his living other ways than writing, but only The Wonderful Wizard of Oz met with much commercial success. Following the success of his first Oz book, Baum went on to write 13 sequels. In addition to the Oz books, he also penned 9 fantasy novels and numerous other novels, short stories and scripts. While he had great success as a writer, Baum's real love was the theater, and even in his lifetime he made a number of attempts to expand Oz beyond the printed page. There was a modestly successful stage adaptation in the early 1900's, although a follow up based on Baum's book The Marvelous Land of Oz, titled The Woggle-Bug for the stage, flopped. A musical version of Ozma of Oz did well enough in Los Angeles, but he couldn't convince producers to try it in New York. The Patchwork Girl of Oz (one of Baum's favourites amongst his own work) was made into a silent film in 1914. At one point L. Frank Baum announced plans for an Oz amusement park (which would have made it one of the worlds first, if not the first, ever theme parks), but nothing ever came of it, and it may have been one of the author's flights of fancy. He started his own film production company in 1914, but it wasn't greatly successful or productive, although Baum didn't lose a lot on it as he didn't invest much of his own money, unlike other failed ventures such as The Fairylogue and Radio Plays. The failure of that, combined with the stress of running the company, transferring it's ownership to his son Frank Joslyn Baum, and the fact that at the time Oz seemed to have become box office poison, contributed to L. Frank's rather early death at the age of 65.

I'm not as enamoured of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as many other fans are. It is however an important book in the evolution of the genre. Baum's intention was to write an American fairytale, something for the modern age, and he accomplished that with Oz, which is indentifiably, unmistakably American and the inclusion of characters like the Scarecrow and especially the Tin Man stamp it as something of a new age. He wanted to remove the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy from the story, although he did still have to include a witch. It's a brisk tale and moves along well, unlike some others though I don't personally think it has that cross generational appeal, it doesn't hold up that well to me on a reread as an adult. The opener and it's sequels did achieve plenty of popularity when they were released, and they're wonderful tales for children, but I'm unsure if it and they would have endured if it were not for MGM's 1939 film. Oz does seem to hold a particular fascination for American authors in particular, and this can possibly be explained by the fact that it was a truly American fairytale.

Further and related reading: first of all there are Baum's 13 Oz sequels, as well as the 26 written after his death, mostly by Ruth Plumly Thompson, but also featuring contributions by John R. Neill (who illustrated many of Baum's Oz books),  Jack Snow, Rachel Cosgrove Payes, Eloise Jarvis McGraw and her daughter. Fantasy author Sherwood Smith also wrote 3 Oz books that are recognised by the L. Frank Baum Family Trust. Eric Shanower and Skottie Young have been producing lavishly illustrated graphic novel adaptations for Marvel Comics. I'd avoid Philip Jose Farmer's Barnstormer in Oz, it's written for adults, and Farmer tended to provide graphic descriptions of both sex and violence in many of his books (A Feast Unknown was originally published as erotica). There have been many screen adaptations of A Wonderful Wizard of Oz, best known are MGM's 1938 Judy Garland film, the animated Journey Back to Oz (1974), featuring the voice work of Judy Garland's daughter Liza Minelli, the all African American The Wiz, originally a stage musical and then a film, as well as the recent The Great and Powerful Oz. Gregory Maguire's Wicked (the story from the witches point of view) was also adapted into the highly successful stage musical of the same name, and there has been talk about a film, Maguire's also written 3 sequels (Son of a Witch, A Lion Among Men and Out of Oz). In 2013 John Joseph Adams edited the anthology Oz Reimagined, which contained Oz stories by writers like Seanan McGuire, Tad Williams and Jane Yolen among others. Williams' Otherland series had a computer generated world based on Oz as one of it's many simulations.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz isn't the first of the modern fairytales, nor was it the last. Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio and Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books predate it. J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit is very much a modern fairytale as is Alan Aldridge's The Gnole and Catherynne M. Valente's Fairyland books about the heartless young September.

Now when I say that the above picture is of Terry Brooks I can hear everyone groan. Bear with me, and I will explain why he's here. Brooks was a practicing attorney when The Sword of Shannara was published in 1977, while the book met with plenty of critical derision, many claiming that it was a shameless rip off of The Lord of the Rings, it achieved commercial success, and Brooks wrote two sequels, which were vastly different from the original, and therefore also quite different from The Lord of the Rings. Plenty of readers believe that the second Shannara book The Elfstones of Shannara was a far superior book to the first one. Once he had a trilogy under his belt, Terry Brooks moved into the world of comic fantasy and wrote a number of Landover books, he was also continuing to add to the Shannara canon while doing this. Since the publication of The Sword of Shannara, Brooks has covered that world from all angles, writing sequels and prequels. Despite the criticism he's received, he has remained a popular author, and has been doing that full time for many years, and he's even got new Shannara novels slated for release in 2015 and 2016. Every so often talk about a TV show based on the books pops up, and that's happened again with the success of HBO's Game of Thrones and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, however nothing solid has ever come about. There used to be a very active fantasy discussion forum on Terry Brooks' website, but that's since wound up, he does however still maintain a presence at

This was the one that started it all: The Sword of Shannara. It is often referred to as a Tolkien rip off and it's hard to argue that it's not highly derivative when you can find direct analogues to many of the characters, places and events in the book to The Lord of the Rings. However when it came out in 1977 if you wanted to read epic fantasy you had a choice of The Lord of the Rings...or The Lord of the Rings. I read The Sword of Shannara after The Lord of the Rings, and to be totally honest I had more fun with The Sword of Shannara. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy The Lord of the Rings, or that I couldn't see the similarities and I was probably reading it with the occasional 'I see what you did there' as I went, but as a fairly stock standard fantasy adventure The Sword of Shannara is a damned good read, put the negatives aside and just focus on the positives, and you'll have a good time. Also just to highlight a large difference, to the best of my knowledge The Lord of the Rings is not set on a post apocalyptic Earth, which The Sword of Shannara is. I'm one of those people who prefers The Sword of Shannara to the sequel, but then again that may be because Elfstones doesn't have Panamon Creel in it, and he was always my favourite character. The Sword of Shannara opened up the epic fantasy sub genre, it came out about the same time as Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and paved the way for things like David Eddings' Belgariad and Raymond Feist's Magician, showed publishers there was a market for this sort of thing, and that turned epic fantasy from a very small niche to a thriving sub genre of it's own.

Further and related reading: there is of course Terry Brooks' many sequels and prequels, still coming out, as well as his non related Landover books, he's also written some non fiction (generally about writing as a craft), and did the novelisations of the films Hook and The Phantom Menace. Similar works to The Sword of Shannara? Well there is of course The Lord of the Rings, which inspired it. Talking about Tolkien rip offs, there's Dennis L. McKiernan's Mithgar series, which began life as a sequel to The Lord of the Rings. Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant, which made it's first appearance about the same time as The Sword of Shannara, I've never taken to the Thomas Covenant books, and I can't for the life of me understand why they escaped some of the same criticism levelled at Terry Brooks when they're every bit as derivative. Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is a little like a Tolkien homage, while managing to be fresh and original at the same time. Robert Jordan's massive Wheel of Time series is also another epic fantasy giant and also has the dystopian feel that Brooks mined in The Sword of Shannara, and later it's prequels.

Mikhail Bulgakov - May 15, 1891 - March 10, 1940. During his own lifetime Mikhail Bulgakov was best known as a dramatist. Prior to devoting his work to the theatre he trained as a doctor, and served in the Red Cross in that capacity during the First World War. He was badly injured twice and became addicted to morphine to kill the pain of his injuries. He quit the drug permanently in 1918, and later wrote a book (Morphine) about that period of his life. Following his work for the Red Cross on the front he went back to Russia, and in 1916 became the provincial physician to Smolensk province. He spent two years there and later wrote about the experience in A Country Doctor's Notebook (an adaptation of this was filmed in 2012 as A Young Doctor's Notebook, starring Daniel Radcliffe and John Hamm). He opened a private practice in his hometown of Kiev, and whilst there witnessed no fewer than ten coups. He was drafted into the army as a physician and found himself in the Northern Caucasus, he became ill with typhus and barely survived. This was where and when he started working as a journalist.

Following this illness he abandoned his career as a doctor and became a writer. Joseph Stalin developed a liking for his work (seeing one of his plays 15 times) and personally protected him and found him work, despite having banned some of his earlier plays. He attempted to emigrate a number of times, but permission was always refused on one ground or another. He began work on his most famous work The Master and Margarita in 1928, while continuing to work on other things, he kept a lot of his work hidden, because of repercussions and critical reception (rarely kind) and the bureaucracy that prevented nearly all of his plays from being staged, as well as the refusal to let him leave the Soviet Union, combined to make him strained and unhappy. He died in 1940, with the work for which he would become best known unpublished.

While Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a number of works that contained science fictional or fantastical elements it is for The Master and Margarita that he is best remembered. The book circulated in samizdat form for many years following the writer's death, but was not properly published until 1966 by his widow, who is believed to have been the model for the Margarita in the title. Bulgakov actually burned part of the manuscript and had to rewrite it from memory. It was written as a critique of Soviet society at the time Bulgakov wrote it and the literary establishment at whose hands he personally suffered. It's not really a linear novel, dealing with meetings between Satan and critics and poets debating the existence of Jesus Christ and the Devil. It has a human sized anthropomorphic gun toting cat (Behemoth) who is a favourite of those who read the book. There's also a marvellous description of a fantastical party. It has a story within in a story portraying the interrogation of Christ by Pilate and the crucifixion, this is the piece being written by the Master of the title. There is a reference in the book by the Master to the burning of the manuscript, so the Master is like a number of Bulgakov's main characters, semi autobiographical. It's one of the most original and fantastical books anyone can ever come across. It's also believed to be the inspiration behind the Rolling Stones hit Sympathy for the Devil.

Further and related reading: for a long time the only of Mikhail Bulgakov's works that was available in an English translation was The Master and Margarita, and even then you had to get a good translation. Now I believe that a number of his works, especially A Country Doctor's Notebook, can be found. They're very different to The Master and Margarita, though. I honestly haven't read anything else quite like it, although he has inspired a number of writers, most notably Mick Jagger for Sympathy for the Devil, and Salman Rushdie has admitted that it was an inspiration for The Satanic Verses.

My fifth and final of the B authors is Jim Butcher.  At the age of 25 Jim Butcher created Harry Dresden as an exercise for a writing class. I believe that story is published in the collection Side Jobs, and the character and idea is very rough when compared the more polished version for which the author has became famous. He wrote the first book of The Dresden Files, was lucky enough to find an agent who represented similar authors and work, and the rest as they say is history. Harry has since starred in 15 books, as well as the aforementioned Side Jobs, and all of them have made the NY Times list, generally at number 1. There was also a criminally short lived TV series starring Paul Blackthorn as the Chicago based Wizard for Hire. Butcher ranged outside of his genre of urban fantasy to produce the epic fantasy The Codex Alera, which was something he'd wanted to do as a kid, but was also connected to a bet he'd made with some fellow authors. He completed that in 6 books. The Dresden Files are ongoing, although the author has tried to cap it at about the 20 book mark, not sue if that's still the plan, though. There is a steampunk novel The Cinder Spire due out in 2015. He can be found on the web at and he also tweets as himself, Harry Dresden and Molly Carpenter (at one point Harry's apprentice).

I'm breaking one of my own rules here (what rules? There are no rules!) about including multiple books, or unfinished series, but I can kind of get away with it. The Dresden Files are all largely self contained, except for Changes, which was continued in Ghost Story, and while there is an overarching story, hence the author saying it will cap out at around book 20, they can mostly be read singly without necessarily having to have read what came before or after. However if you read one, you'll want to read more, because they are highly addictive. I can't really pick a favourite, so I'm putting the series as a whole here. It really did a lot to put urban fantasy on the map and make it more accessible and acceptable to readers, especially those who equate it with paranormal romance, which in a lot of cases is erotica with added vampires and werewolves. Over the course of the 15 books, Harry has battled with and against vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, wizards, witches, fairies, pixies, police and mob bosses, that's just a sampling mind you. One book actually featured him riding the skeleton of a T-Rex. What they are is fun and adventurous, and in a world filled with morally ambiguous anti heroes, Harry is a guy that you're not ashamed to want to succeed, because while he does sometimes make the hard decision, he's always trying to do what is the right thing. In terms of style, its fairly utilitarian, it gets the job done without making a fuss, it's kind of Gandalf if he'd been written by Raymond Chandler.

Further and related reading: I mentioned Jim Butcher's other writing outside of The Dresden Files, with The Codex Alera and the upcoming The Cinder Spire, which I believe is also the first of a series.
Because The Dresden Files are urban fantasy and that's a thriving sub genre, readers are almost spoilt for choice. I originally came to The Dresden Files via Simon Green's Nightside series, which I liked, but wasn't mad about, and then other readers recommended The Dresden Files as being similar, but better. Green did 12 of those, and I tend to think they're more like Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere than The Dresden Files, but ymmv. Jim Butcher's original agent also represented Laurell K. Hamilton, and the early books of her Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series do bear some resemblance, Anita was a little like a female Harry, although after a few books they became more about sex than story, and now they seem to be a collection of who Anita's sleeping with held together by the thinnest of storylines. They've created a little sub genre of their own called Vampire Porn. Benedict Jacka's Alex Verus series is a little like a British version of Harry Dresden, he even cheekily references the series in the first book (Fated), only I found the protagonist fairly unlikeable, and he wasn't anywhere near as funny as the author seemed to think he was, and they were also very derivative, there's a fine line between being similar to and derivative, and Fated crossed it. Kevin Hearne has had some success with his Iron Druid series, about the 2,000 year old Atticus O'Sullivan, although after the first couple of books Atticus seems to mainly battle various pantheons of Gods, and his continual comedy monologue kills the tension and can become rather repetitive and unfunny after a while. The closest thing I can find to Harry is Seanan McGuire's October Daye stories, the first book was very similar in tone to The Dresden Files, while being something very different of it's own (no vampires or werewolves, the Cait Sidhe are kind of werecats, though), it just had that same faux hard boiled detective feel to it, the big difference between Toby and Harry is that Toby's half fae and spends most of her time investigating mysteries that involve the fae community of the San Francisco Bay Area. Mercedes Lackey's underrated and little known Diana Tregarde series is also something to consider if you want something like The Dresden Files, Diana refers to herself as a practicing witch, and she battles vampires, Gods and witches, there's only 3 books however, with no plans for more.

I've managed to cover dark fantasy, modern fairytales, epic fantasy and urban fantasy with those 5 authors. I wonder what the C's will bring.

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