I was unable to sleep last night (very hot and sticky down here) and I pulled out an old book I have called 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels and began to flick through it. I don't know if I could make a list of exactly 100, I'd be sure to go over or under, and I don't like titles like Must-Read or Best Of, they're both quite subjective and always subject to debate and/or argument. I started to think about it, and thought that I could make a list from A - Z (although I may struggle to find authors that have names starting with letters like X or Q, possibly Y and Z as well) of favourite authors and their books that I like most.
Because it's a favourites list that's also quite subjective, but it's only my personal opinion. However because it is as personal as it is that will mean some interesting additions and omissions as well as a few quirks that are probably common only to me and how I view the genre.
Each entry will cover a letter and have the authors whose surnames start with that letter that I have chosen in it. There will be a brief author bio, the book of theirs I've chosen and then a further reading list with selected works by that author and related books by other authors (some of those will more than likely also appear in this list). So lets have at it!
Ben Aaronovitch. Alphabetically Londoner Ben Aaronovitch is first cab off the rank. Aaronovitch first came to the attention of the genre for his work on the evergreen British science fiction show Doctor Who. Prior to publishing his Peter Grant/Folly novels he was best known for Remembrance of the Daleks, a 1998 Doctor Who serial featuring the 7th Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and his companion Ace (Sophie Aldred). It's a highly regarded entry in the show by many fans and was ranked as the 10th best in a poll of fans done by the show's official magazine. The Peter Grant or Folly series (the author seems to refer to them as the Folly books and most readers call them the Peter Grant books), started in 2011 and has now produced 5 books, with more planned. Ben keeps a blog at http://temporarilysignificant.blogspot.com and tweets @Ben_Aaronovitch.
There are 5 books in the series so far, but I tend to go for the series opener Rivers of London as my favourite of the 5. At the heart of it they're urban fantasy with a strong police procedural twist, which makes sense as the series' 'hero' Peter Grant is a bi racial London copper. While this one, and the books that follow largely concern themselves with Peter's learning of magic and his attempts to track down various London based (although the most recent book; Foxglove Summer, took him out of his comfort zone and into the English countryside) magical criminals, and most often the dangerous and mysterious Faceless Man, they're really about London and certain aspects of it and how it is an ancient and magical city. The title is so apt for the book, it's all about the city and the various waterways (it isn't just the Thames) that run through it, around it and under it, have been throughout the ages, and still are, the veins through which it's life's blood flows. I tend to rate the opener a little higher because it's the one that so skilfully introduces the concept and the main characters. The somewhat confused Peter, his ill-fated parter Leslie, his old and out of step with the modern world guvnor Nightingale, and their mysterious, largely silent and often highly amusing maid Molly. Although the books are all connected, and the 4th (Broken Homes) ended on a cliff, generally they're fairly episodic and self contained, so can be read singly and still give the reader some sort of a sense of closure.
Further and related reading: Rivers of London (which was for some reason called Midnight Riot in the US) was followed by Moon Over Soho, Whispers Underground, Broken Homes and Foxglove Summer. A 6th book, The Hanging Tree, is due out sometime in 2015. There's also a novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks available, and a few of the New Doctor Who Adventures published by Virgin. For a brief time Ben Aaronovitch had the weird stuff happens in London police procedural playground all to himself, before his fellow Doctor Who writer Paul Cornell produced the Shadow Police series (London Falling, The Severed Streets, with a third book also due sometime in 2015) got into the market. The Shadow Police books are even heavier on the police procedural stuff, lighter on the magic and somewhat darker, veering into horror territory at times, with a harder edge than Aaronovitch's Folly books. There was also a 6 issue comic put out by Marvel's Epic imprint during the 80's called The Bozz Chronicles which dealt with an alien, a former prostitute, a down on his luck American prospector and an aristocratic British detective investigating supernatural and science fictional happenings in and around London in the late 19th century. If you can track them down they're worth a read and highly entertaining, especially the interaction between Bozz and Mandy.
Another Englishman. Joe Abercrombie. Formerly a freelance film editor (he may actually still keep his hand in, but I think he's a full time author these days) Abercrombie first entered the world of fantasy in 2006 with the publication of The Blade Itself, the first volume of The First Law trilogy. By 2008 he had completed that trilogy and followed it up with 3 related standalone novels (Best Served Cold, The Heroes and Red Country), they were all set in the same world as The First Law and featured characters from that trilogy coming in and out of the stories. Having conquered the world of adult epic fantasy with those 6 books, in 2014 he set his sights on the field of YA fantasy with the publication of Half a King, the first book in a trilogy. The second volume; Half the World, has just come out and the final book; Half a War (see the theme in the titles) is due out later in 2015. All of the published books have gone on to sell well and been received positively by both fans and critics. He cultivates a rather sarcastic, narcissistic public persona, keeps a blog at http://joeabercrombie.com and tweets as @LordGrimdark, which in typical Joe Abercrombie fashion is a reference to his perceived status as one of the leading voices of the subgenre known as 'grimdark'.
There's plenty of debate amongst fans as to which of Joe's 'Circleworld' novels is the best, and now with the publication of the 'Half' trilogy, people are rating those among his best as well, but my personal favourite is The Heroes. While there are some characters from the original trilogy and the previous standalone (Best Served Cold) and some slight spoilers for those, The Heroes can be quite comfortably read and enjoyed without knowing anything about them or having read them. The storyline for The Heroes is quite simple, it's basically coverage of a battle for territory, and it centres around a circle of standing stones which give the book its name, they are 'the heroes' of the title. The multiple third person PoV technique focusses on various participants in the battle and the eventual conclusion is that 'war is hell'. The book used a tagline: 'Three Men. One Battle. No Heroes' which summed it up perfectly. It contains plenty of examples of the dark humour that characterises Abercrombie's Circleworld books, as well as the overwhelming bleakness that in life no one really wins. Like most of his work it is very low magic and if it weren't on a secondary world about a battle that never happened, it could almost qualify as historical fiction. It's the characters and their stories that make it work, and it's the most satisfying of Joe's novels for me because of it's tight focus and short space of time. While it's full of the morally ambiguous anti heroes that are so beloved of the grimdark subgenre I felt I had a few people I didn't feel dirty about supporting as is so often the case with that particular subset of 'heroes'. It also contains some wonderfully written battle and action scenes, which are another hallmark of Abercrombie's work.
Further and related reading: there are the other Circleworld books by Joe and his two YA entries (which while they purport to be something new and different are really very similar to the Circleworld books but with less sex, violence and language. The setting is really the Northland in the Circleworld, and I can make direct analogues between some of the characters in those and his other books, it's just the names that have changed) to go on with. He draws inspiration from a number of sources. The Heroes in particular put me in mind of David Gemmell's Legend. There are also the other names in the grimdark field: Glen Cook and his Black Company books, Steven Erikson and Cameron Esslemont's epic Malazan series (both Black Company and Malazan contain considerably more magic than anything Abercrombie has yet written), there's also Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire trilogy, with it's young morally bankrupt protagonist Jorg Ancrath and it's bleak dystopian setting. At the time when The Blade Itself made it's appearance, I feel that Abercrombie must have drawn some inspiration from George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, which is what people think kick started the whole interest in the grimdark subgenre, although he was far from the first person to write it or even coin the term, which originally began as a tagline for the Warhammer 40,000 A.D concept. With his Northland and his 'Vikings' there's people like Henry Treece and Rosemary Sutcliffe as well as the TV show Vikings.
I did kind of debate with myself about whether to include Richard Adams in this list (he does appear in the 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels list), but when you think about it he wrote books about animals that think like people, and one of them has visions of the future and it doesn't come a lot more fantastical than that. Richard Adams spent most of his working life as a civil servant before allowing his daughters to pressure him into putting the stories that he told them about wildlife to keep them amused on long car trips down into the form of a novel. That novel was Watership Down, and it was hugely successful, it enabled Adams to leave the civil service and devote his time to writing. It also spawned a successful animated feature film (although it's probably better remembered for the saccharine sweet Art Garfunkel chart topping theme song) and a television series. While Adams is best known for Watership Down, it wasn't his only novel and he had success with others: Shardik (a grizzly bear) and The Plague Dogs (escaped dogs used for scientific research) as well as a number of non fiction books, The Girl in a Swing (a suspense novel) and also a collection of shorts that revisited the site of his greatest triumph of Watership Down. Although in his 90's, Adams is only semi retired and still writes, although he hasn't published anything since a story in 2010's Gentle Footprints which was to raise funds for the Born Free foundation.
When you say Adams' name to most people they immediately think of Watership Down. I don't. I think my first exposure to him was through The Plague Dogs, it was a book my mother had heard about, and she borrowed it from the library to see what the fuss was about. I read it after her. It's not what anyone could call an enjoyable read. The subject matter makes it an uncomfortable thing to read, especially if you are, like me, a dog lover. The two heroes: Rowf and Snitter escape from a research facility where they have both been horribly mistreated (Rowf, being a big strong dog, was regularly 'drowned' to test his lung capacity, and poor little Snitter had part of his brain removed and is largely insane because of it). Because of where they escaped from they're pursued by all and sundry, partially due to the fact that they escaped, also because they kill sheep to survive and then a rumour starts that they're plague carriers. Despite being put through absolute hell, the book does have a happy ending, with Snitter being reunited with his long lost master, who he actually believed dead, and he also takes in Rowf. Adams' original ending was far more ambiguous, and that was used for an animated feature film adaptation in 1982. It has flaws. Adams liked using accents for his characters, he does it in Watership Down and again here with the character of the Tod (a fox), whose thick Geordie accent renders him almost unintelligible to people not familiar with the accent. It barely qualifies as fantasy although Snitter's 'visions' could be compared to those of Fiver in Watership Down, although they're probably driven by the experiments performed on the poor little terrier's brain. While the subject matter is important and real, it can be hard for people to read, and it doesn't have the cross generational appeal that Watership Down did, plus big mongrels and mad terriers aren't as cuddly as bunnies looking for a new place to live.
Further and related reading: now this one is a big field. Adams was different from many others who wrote 'animal novels' before him and after actually. Richard Adams' animals lived like they do in the wild, they weren't anthropomorphised, they didn't wear clothes, live in houses or drive cars, nor did they observe human customs, like invite each other around for tea. They did however think and interact like people on many other levels, the accents are an example of that. There were plenty before and since. A.R Lloyd's Kine is a wonderful book about a weasel and the summer that he and his friends took on and defeated the escaped minks that tried to take over their hard won territory. It's hard to mention animal books without recommending Kenneth Grahame's marvelous The Wind in the Willows (which will more than likely reappear in the G's), and I think Beatrix Potter's tales for children also qualify, as while her animals are more like people than Adams' were, she was a keen naturalist, and studied her subjects extensively both alive and dead to make sure she got her drawings and descriptions of behaviour correct. Brian Jacques Redwall series about a group of medieval adventuring anthropomorphic animals are a heap of fun. There's also Garry Kilworth's The House of Tribes, which is almost a Watership Down featuring groups of house dwelling mice in place of the rabbits. Kilworth wrote a number of animal novels featuring foxes, owls, hares and had a successful YA series called The Welkin Weasels. William Horwood's Duncton Chronicles is largely Watership Down with moles, he also covered wolves with The Wolves of Time and it's sequel Seekers at the Wulfrock as well as writing four sequels to The Wind in The Willows. More recently Laline Paull has entered this subgenre with The Bees, covering the goings on in a dying hive through the eyes of one of the worker bees.
Not many people who read fantasy seem to have heard of Alan Aldridge. That's not really surprising as he is better known as an illustrator and graphic designer. His colourful, cartoony, psychelic pictures have graced many album covers, and he is remembered for his picture book The Butterfly Ball and Grasshopper Feast. I can remember the animated short from the mid '70's. He also did a number of book covers. In 1991, in collaboration with Steve Boyett and Maxine Miller, he released a gem of a book called The Gnole, and that's what I know him for, although I had seen his work on album covers (he did the artwork for Elton John's Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy) and as mentioned Butterfly Ball.
Hardly anyone now has even heard of The Gnole. You get a 'Huh? What's that?' when you mention it. It's one of my favourites of all time. It created a brand new creature: a gnole is kind of like a cross between a gnome and a mole, they live away from society by choice and have been around since the destruction of Atlantis, although it's quite possible that Fungle (the titular character) and his friend Neema may be the last ones left. He leaves his home in the Smoky Mountains to stop a demon from getting hold of a doomsday device. The world is a dangerous and strange place for a backwoods gnole on his own, but Fungle is equal to the task, and although he's captured for experimentation, the gnole captures the minds and hearts of the media, before escaping back to his home in the Smoky's. I should stress that this is about the lavishly illustrated trade paperback edition. Aldridge's illustrations grace it throughout and add to the story, which I suspect was mostly Boyett's work. That particular version of the book isn't all that easy to find now, but it's worth searching for. It's a modern day fairytale, and Fungle really deserves to be up there with Bilbo Baggins, but the book is for some reason often overlooked.
Further and related reading: Alan Aldridge really only wrote this as a full length novel, but if you can find The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast that's worth doing as it's a visual feast. Steve Boyett also wrote Ariel and it's sequel Elegy Beach, both are rather dystopian novels about what could happen to the world if technology was suddenly turned off and replaced by magic. It's hard to say what is like The Gnole as there isn't a whole lot to compare it to. As I said it's a modern day fairytale and two books that I can think of that do fit that bill, which will also appear in later posts, are Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien.
Poul Anderson (November 25, 1926 - July 31, 2001) was one of the most highly decorated and respected writers of speculative fiction that has worked in the field. His first stories appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in the late 1940's, and he continued to produce work that ranged across the entire spectrum of the field. He was a founding member of the Society for Creative Anachronism in 1966, and the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America led by Lin Carter, with an exclusive membership of 8. He was also the 6th President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Over his career he was awarded the Gandalf Grandmaster of Fantasy (1978), 7 Hugos, a John W. Campbell, a Locus, a Mythopoeic, 3 Nebulas, 4 Prometheus, made an SFWA Grandmaster (1997) and inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2000. If it was genre, you name it, Anderson wrote it.
I haven't read a lot of Poul Anderson (hangs head in shame), but that 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels book did prompt me to give The Broken Sword a try. It's rather hard to know exactly how to categorise it. On the one hand it's sword and sorcery, but on the other it's an epic fairytale retelling in grand Tolkienesque style, and because Anderson's background was from Northern Europe (his parents were Scandinavian and following his father's death he spent time living in Denmark, before moving back to the United States after the outbreak of WW II), he covers some of the same ground as Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings. I say it's epic, but it's all of 274 pages, which would barely scratch the surface of one of today's doorstoppers. Despite the seeming brevity, Anderson packs a hell of a story into it. We've got changelings, fights between human tribes and those in the shadowy lands of faerie, there's incest and love, blood and violence, and some fantastic battles and fight scenes. This is grimdark before they'd hung a name on it. It won't take you long to read, but it will stay with you forever after once you have.
Further and related reading: I'd be here all day if I even attempted to list Poul Anderson's bibliography, which spanned more than 50 years and over 20 full length novels, as well as countless short stories. His work, especially The Broken Sword, which despite the Norse influences, is largely Sword and Sorcery, so was therefore influenced by the father of that subgenre Robert E. Howard, in fact Anderson actually wrote a Conan novel. His contemporaries were the likes of Lin Carter, L. Sprague De Camp, Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance among others (all of those were also members of the Swordsmen and Sorcerer's Guild of America), he's one of the few who can say he wasn't directly influenced by Tolkien despite having some common ground, because they were writing at the same time. Michael Moorcock has cited Poul Anderson as an influence, specifically mentioning The Broken Sword. He's never openly said it, but George R.R Martin had to have Poul Anderson as one of his influences and I can't see how Joe Abercrombie could deny it.
That's the A's. Join me next week for the B's.