Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Recommended Reading

I'm mentally and physically exhausted by work at the moment, so apologies for the "light blogging" nature of my posting for the near future. Anyway, in the comments on yesterday's post, Martin asked be for some recommended reading, and that seems a good place to go when you don't have a great deal of time for an entry and are lacking energy for reading other blogs for inspiration. So, a list of fantasy and SF books which meet with noisms' approval:

  • Anything by Gene Wolfe, but I strongly recommend The Wizard Knight; everybody (rightly) praises The Book of the New Sun, but The Wizard Knight contains some simply stunning passages, and has much more of a "human" feel. Perhaps Wolfe has mellowed in his old age.
  • M. John Harrison's Viriconium saga, natch. Nowadays you can get them all, three novellas and about a dozen short stories, in a single volume. A must for anybody who is interested in proper fantasy for grownups. 
  • I'm not really into "young adult" books (the phrase "young adult" actually makes me want to vomit) but you can't go wrong with the Legends of Lone Wolf series by John Grant. These are essentially a novelisation of the gamebook line of the same name, but they're surprisingly good reads, and pretty well-written for what they are. (John Grant got pretty avant-garde for an author of books aimed at teenagers; one of the books contains an entire chapter written in the 2nd person.)
  • Glen Cook's Black Company novels are a rollicking read.
  • If you can get it, I'd say Jack Vance's best work is Cugel's Saga. If you read that book and don't immediately recognise the man for being one of the top 10 living prose stylists in the English language, you literally do not know what you are talking about. The prequel, The Eyes of the Overworld, is almost as good but not quite.
  • I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, because it's utterly insane but so po-faced it just works. And it goes on for volume after volume, so if you're into that sort of thing...
  • Moving onto SF, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman has to be up there.
  • It seems crass to recommend anything by William Gibson, because I'd be amazed that anyone reading this blog hasn't been through all his books anyway, but Burning Chrome, a selection of his early short stories, is excellent. "Red Star, Winter Orbit", "Dogfight", "New Rose Hotel", and the title piece are bona fide classics, and the rest are consistently great (although oddly, I never quite understood the appeal of "Johnny Mnemomic").
  • Clive Barker's Galilee is not often read or talked about, but I loved it. It's as weird and all-over-the-place as you'd expect with a Barker book, but you won't read anything else like it anywhere.
  • If you like animal fantasy or just fancy something different, check out William Horwood's Duncton Wood and sequels. Don't expect it to be like Redwall: features a pregnant mole having her belly ripped open by rooks, for example.
  • Weis and Hickman write complete balderdash, but it can be a lot of fun. The Death Gate Cycle is an example of this. Completely throwaway and superficial, but you know what? It's entertaining, and sometimes that's all that matters.
  • Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is great alt-history, which imagines what would have happened to the world if everybody in Europe had died from the Black Death. The politics are a bit questionable, but it's an interesting idea, well-executed.
  • Finally, China Mieville is a bit hit-and-miss, but The Scar and Iron Council are must-reads, in my opinion.

And some fantasy and SF books which noisms thinks are over-rated or plain duds:

  • Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen is based on a GURPS fantasy campaign, and reads like it too. 
  • Anything by David Eddings is just awful, but I especially recommend steering clear of the Sparhawk books. I read all of them and even at the age of 14 I spotted them for the sheer rubbish they are.
  • John Crowley's Little, Big is raved about, but I found it an excruciating read. Turgid, florid, and boring.
  • Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy threatened to be interesting with a fun setting (cyberpunk future based on an alternative history scenario in which the Ottoman Empire never collapsed). But it never gelled for me and I gave up after about 200 pages.
  • Lord spare us from Anne McCaffrey.
  • I actively despised Mary Gentle's White Crow novels. Boring, self-important, and arch. There is nothing worse than somebody self-consciously trying to be literary when they're writing pulp. Compare her approach to that of Vance. Or, on second thoughts, don't, because it'll only encourage her if you buy a copy.
  • I tried to get interested in Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, but it just seemed like a poor man's ASOIAF, and the "it's like Europe but not quite Europe" motif is really unimaginative. Avoid.

Anyway, nowadays my visits to the Fantasy & SF section in the book shop usually leads to profound dismay at all the crappy trilogies purporting to be "a must for Tolkien fans everywhere" (or whatever) and the proliferation of "Dark Fantasy" (a psuedonym for "Twilight with the serial numbers filed off"), so I tend not to bother any more. I may be missing out on all kinds of wonders. Somehow I doubt it, though.


  1. What I didn't realize as a teenager was that fantasy and SF get milled out just as readily as Harlequin Romances. Which of course leads to a lot of formulaic, derivative shit. I've honestly not encountered any of these (outside other blogs) except the Duncton books, so clearly I missed out on some good stuff while I wasted my life with the Wheel of Time books (everyone: don't fucking read them).

  2. I would add the Earthsea books, especially the first (A Wizard of Earthsea), by Le Guin. Also, The Mirror of Her Dreams and A Man Rides Through, by Donaldson (this two-part series is really good). +1 on anything by Gene Wolfe. The Eyes of the Dragon, by Stephen King (the only "fantasy" book he has really written), and the first Darktower novel, The Gunslinger (the other Darktower seemed too arbitrary and silly to me, but The Gunslinger is dreamlike and wonderful).

    I also liked the Death Gate cycle when I read it way back when; the setting and the rune magic is awesome, though I remember feeling like it didn't really have an ending. I also still love, for all their flaws, the Dragonlance Legends trilogy (as derivative as many of the parts are, Raistlin will always remain a special character, IMO).

  3. I believe The Wizard Knight was written for children something which is evident when the prose is set beside the Shadow of the Torturer et al.

  4. Ditto for Cugel's Saga. A great book, very unique, very funny. I agree about Eyes of the Overworld, mainly because Cugel is not just a scoundrel but actually sort of a horrible monster bastard in that one. However, the payoff for reading both is greater than for reading just the one. At the end of Eyes, when Cugel's dumped back on the beach where he started... Epic!

    Not a Lieber fan? How about Lord Dunsany?

    If you haven't read his work I bet you'd love the shit out of it, just based on what I know from your OSR output. The man was a dreamer. Read Bride of the Man Horse (then Chu-Bu and Sheemish, then Thangobrind). Take you twenty minutes. This isn't the right format for it (the right format is a musty old book with Sidney Sime's illustrations*) so I recommend changing the font at least to something dignified...but I think the general majesty of the story still comes through.

    *Sidney Sime:

    See the bottom of the page for links to scans of all of Dunsany's books, hosted at the Internet Archive.

  5. Praise to "The Pliocene Exile": when I was kid I literally read the whole saga over and over. I always toyed with the idea of a D&D psionic-medieval campaign based on these books (and maybe the Darkover saga), but I never really liked the AD&D psionic rules.
    (Mmm, I wonder why Darkover o The Exile never get one of those licensed-based GURPS campaign books...)

  6. I'm seeing MJ Harrison pop up here and there, and am intrigued enough to add him to my reading list, thanks!

    I read enough fiction to my 9 year old that I'll check out Legends of Lone Wolf as well. We're almost done with Lloyd Alexander's Prydain books.

  7. YEAH, nice to see The Forever War get some props! That's a book that many hardcore science fiction fans let slip under their radar. Such a good book, really powerful. Highly recommend that people read that one! Great list!

  8. @brendan

    I agree with you on Le Guin, although I think Tombs of Atuan is the best of the series. Left Hand of Darkness is her masterpiece in my opinion.

  9. Julian May stuck in my mind, and I think your write-up is spot on.
    For some reason when I was 14 I read everything Stephen Donaldson wrote. I can't think why, now.

    OTOH, no Tim Powers? I confess, I haven't read much by him, but Anubis Gates deserves all the praise it got. Even if he's not such a literary stylist, the ideas fizz.

  10. HDA: Get reading then!

    Brendan: I'm not a fan of Earthsea. It didn't bore me, but nor did it especially grab me, either.

    Kent: I don't think it was written for children... At least, I don't imagine the sequence in which it describes how giants have sex with human women was written with children in mind...

    Jesse: Yes, I like Dunsany, but I figure everybody reading this blog has read him. (They've probably most all read Vance and Wolfe too, but I don't think you can ever recommend either highly enough.)

    liza: Glad I'm not the only one who's read them!

    Beedo: I'd say it depends on your 9-year-olds whether they'll like the books or not. The fight scenes are pretty graphic (eyes getting poked out, intestines spilling out on the floor, etc.) and there is a bit of very teenage-angsty romance.

    Drance: It's a genuine classic that gets oddly overlooked.

    richard: I've never even heard of Tim Powers - just goes to show!

  11. One book I always recommend on threads like this is The Dragon Never Sleeps by Glen Cook. It's a space opera trilogy boiled down into one novel. The plot is a bit labyrinthian, but there's just so much stuff going on in one novel with no fat at all. Great stuff, some of the best big smashy space battles I've read. Not high literature or anything, but my favorite bit of space opera.

  12. It's been a while since we had a good stoush, Noisms, so I'm going to try it on here with a controversial opinion: the Dragonlance Chronicles are actually excellent (the first three, I mean; I liked the next three a lot too but feel dirty recommending a series of six books). I don't just say this because I liked them when I was 12 (I did). I reread them as an adult, in what I thought would be an experiment in masochism, and they were great.

    Some "young adult"[1] novels I liked were anything by Robert Westall (particularly The Cats of Seroster) and The Ring of Allaire by Susan Dexter, which I'm about to reread out of interest. I also remember a series of books by Maurice Gee (a New Zealander), the first of which was televised in NZ when I grew up there. I think young adult novels can have a special power, because they can retain childish elements while tackling adult themes, and when they're done well they're really good. When they're done badly though, they're really, really bad.

    fn1: whenever I read this I think of that scene from the young ones. "I'm old enough to go to war but I'm not allowed to drink in pubs."

  13. Joe Abercrombie's 'The First Law' trilogy is really good fun. I'd also recommend Michael Moorcock's 'The Warhound and the World's Pain'.

    I won a few of the Lone Wolf novels as part of a eBay job lot recently. I doubt I'd have even given them a second glance if you hadn't recommended them, but I might give them a bash.

  14. I've read MOST of Moorcock's work, definitely within the "experiment in masochism" camp, but there's an encapsulating context beyond the literal gibberish that's, at minimum, intriguing. At least, to me.

    At 40+ yrs old, I only just last year read Zelazny's Amber chronicles (both Corwin and Merlin cycles) and found plenty both to admire and to sneer at.

    At some vague point in the not too distant past (1990-ish? The Internet?) it seems like the fantasy fiction game changed. Before then, if your initials weren't JRR, your output had to largely approximate 'pulp' at first glance, and anything of deeper substance had to be a subversive addition. That's certainly my take on Zelazny, for example.

    But more recently it feels like all semblance of quality control has gone by the boards, allowing for both the truly excellent and the excruciatingly bad.

    Maybe it has to do with generations; the best stuff being written now is being written by those who grew up absorbing the best (and worst) of the, hurm, original masters.

    The worst is being written for the next generation down, apparently unable to defend itself from the imperative to dumb it down and make a breakfast cereal out of it...

    Somehow this turned into a rant. My apologies.

  15. Ah, now I know why you like those books. I was sure it wasn't for the sub-adult prose style.

  16. Tuf Voyaging by George R. R. Martin. 'Nuff said.

  17. Kent: I think you're making the classic mistake of confusing authorial and narrative voice. The Wizard Knight is written in the first person, and the main character is a boy who gains an adult's body. This is an opportunity for Wolfe to show what a stunning stylist he really is, because he is able to write profoundly poetic prose while never letting the reader forget that the narrator is an adolescent. It's a tour de force.

  18. I just don't agree that the language ever becomes interesting. I believe the self imposed narrative restriction is simply to provide a straight forward read for youngsters - mid teens - and say this only because I have seen what Wolfe can do with language in Shadow of the Torturer and some of his science fiction shorts.