Baghdad, Bureaucracy and Bikinis

My favourite fantasy books

Four things prompted this.

  1. According to the sign Anne hung behind me, we’re currently in day 34 of lockdown. (We were both symptomatic early, so got a ‘jump’ on the rest of the country.) Listicles are the extent of my concentration at this point.

  2. A rather fabulous virtual lecture by the erudite and endlessly-amusing Adam Roberts. I hope to revisit some of the questions he raised later on, or in future emails. One theme he touched on was a sort of critical self-examination of ‘what we want from writers’ - both right now and in the future. Which, of course, lends itself to consideration of what I’ve wanted from writers in the past…

  3. This Best of British storybundle (Pay what you want! Get a stack of fabulous books), including The Best of British Fantasy.

  4. Someone (bless you, Micah) was foolish enough to ask me my opinion. And, really, that’s all it takes.

Micah’s exact question was: if you could give out your favorite fantasy novels/series which ones would you pick!? This is a nice variant on the ‘what’s your favourite?’ question, as it also involves a certain amount of audience insight. I’m not throwing books around willy-nilly, I have to think about who might like them.

So, without further ado, my favourite fantasy novels/series, and who I would give them to.

First, a freebie:

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit

I’ve got a whole category below of ‘books I excluded because they’re way too obvious’, and The Hobbit should, in all fairness, rest safely at the top of it.

But, and be honest, when’s the last time you reread (or god forbid, read) The Hobbit?

It is, in many aesthetic ways, the perfect fantasy book. It has a magic sword, a wizard, and a freaking dragon. And yet, it is also a perfect novel in its own right: tension, fear, triumph, sadness, and glory. There’s an unconventional protagonist, the success of wits over brawn, and a ferociously pacifist (or anti-war) resolution. The Hobbit has beautiful character development, deep moral guidance, and beautiful style - poetic without being pretentious.

And it does so in a gloriously compact package. Despite being, itself, hobbit-sized, it contains as rich of a story, depth of character, and lush world-building as could be found in a fantasy series twenty times the length.

The hill I will die on is that The Hobbit, not Lord of the Rings, is Tolkien’s masterpiece, and is as close as we may ever come to the perfect fantasy novel.

Who would I give it to? Without being daft - everyone. It is for kids and adults. With its deft use (or creation of) archetypes and short length, it makes an ideal ‘first’ fantasy. But the clever use of those archetypes, and the subtlety of its themes, make it ideal for critically-minded fantasy veterans as well. Buy it for them.

Ok, enough hitting off the tee, here are my ten favourites for real:

Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price quartet

The Long Price follows the rise (and fall?) of two men and two empires. The latter are somewhat archetypical in their own right: an aristocratic, decadent imperial power and a younger, industrialised competitor.

Magic expressed through ‘Poets’, scholars who spend lifetimes of study in order to bring a single concept into material form. These avatars are cunning and hostile, and Poets then face the exhausting tension of holding them captive.

As fascinating as this is, The Long Price is less about its unique magic system, and more about the two men at the story’s core. Over the four books, we follow them as they fall in love, triumph, crawl forth from (and back to) poverty and failure; they forge friendships and families, battle with their ideals and their enemies. It is great historical fiction, in the Great Man model, just of a history that never was.

Who would I give it to? As noted, fans of historical fiction. The fantasy elements aren’t overwhelming (and are, in fact, rather muted) - but the series starts slowly and passively. Readers with patience will be rewarded. Get them started.

Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden

I’ve waxed poetic about this book in previous newsletters, so I’ll be (relatively) quick. A collection of short stories, written over Aiken’s lifetime, following the quirky, very ‘British’ adventures of the Armitage Family. It is cozy, but doesn’t shy from emotional depth.

Who would I give it to? Anyone reading to their children. Anyone - right now - who needs a comfortable, but thoughtful, read, and doesn’t have the attention span for longer works. Please, please, please read this wonderful book.

Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue

I suppose this is the magical realism spot. The Queue takes place in an unspecified contemporary nation. The government bureaucracy is all-encompassing, and permission is granted through a series of licenses given by an enigmatic department. As more and more people patiently wait their turn (and the reader quickly grows to realise those turns may never come), a rough-and-ready society springs up in the rapidly increasing queue, with its own ‘governance’ and culture, rules and regulations.

It is Kafka, but contemporary and characterful, heartbreaking and hopeful.

Who would I give it to? Fans of the absurd. Those that like small stories of quiet triumph. Civil servants. Start queueing.

Jesse Bullington’s The Folly of the World

A peripatetic morality tale, featuring trio of con-men in 15th Century Holland. Less of a ‘plot’ than a series of amusing, bizarre, and gruesome events, all adding up to a deeply weird and filthily enjoyable book.

I rate Folly specifically as a fantasy for the way it integrates the fantastic into the everyday life, beliefs, and perceptions of the characters. For the reader, external to the text, some of the events are suspiciously MAGIC. For the characters, they are simply part of their everyday life, explained through their worldview and beliefs. It is deeply immersive and beautifully (and rarely) done.

Who would I give it to? Horror fans. Art students. History buffs. Take the plunge.

Saad Hossain’s Escape from Baghdad!

I actually wrote a pretty good (and short) review of this in the carefree days of 2015:

Catch 22 via Tim Powers. In war-torn Iraq, a professor and a smuggler set out on a Quixotic quest for a lost fortune. The fantastic is so carefully interwoven that you wind up believing before you know it, and the book leaves you with the sinking sensation that myth can make more sense than reality.

Escape! is a pulpy (note the !) thriller that is entertaining and bonkers and wildly funny… until it makes one of its occasional brushes against reality, and you realise how deeply sinister and depressing the whole thing is. It is a wonderfully modern and televisual book, a fast-moving mix of characters, action and suspense.

Who would I give it to? Cinemaphiles. Fans of award-winning (and slightly unclassifiable) shows like Fargo, True Detective, Oz, or Generation Kill. Escape into it.

Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo

When Paama leaves her ludicrous husband, the djombi (spirits) give her the Chaos Stick out of admiration. It’s original owner, the indigo djombi, takes Paama on trips through time in order to convince her to return it to him.

Told as a traditional fairytale, although occasionally interspersed with a bit of quantum physics, Redemption is simply delightful. Paama is courageous and warm in every way - a truly fantasy protagonist (over and above being a woman of colour! - she possesses no Destiny, no magic bloodline, no foretold quest or magical talents. She’s a kind person and a good cook, and despite (because of?) her ordinariness, she’s exactly who we want to be facing off against dire supernatural powers.

Who would I give it to? Lovers of fairy tales, empowerment, and fine dining. Get cooking.

China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station

Our protagonists: a disgruntled scientist and a bug-headed painter.

Also featuring: a wingless birdman, rebellious steampunk cyborgs, cactus people, robot monsters, the Ambassador of Hell, mantis-armed outlaws, shapeless horrors, and a badger.

What it’s about: free will, agency, morality.

Perdido is the uber-fantasy. It has everything in it, tiny atomised bits of madcap imagination, all Legoing up to talk about the biggest questions.

(Fun fact: Waaaay back in 2013, there was a fun little competition to come up with The Greatest Fantasy Novel. My nominee was Perdido Street Station. And, honestly, I still stand by it.)

Who would I give it to? Perdido, despite being my personal desert island book, is a tricky read, and because it is an intentional subversion, can be a little frustrating for folks expecting Tolkienny straightforwardness. Good for anyone that actively seeks a challenge. Apologies for inadvertently damning it, but I can see passing it off to Pynchon and DFW readers: people that like something big and bonkers, and don’t mind mucking through weirdness and linguistic bravery. Or, better yet, those who enjoy Umberto Eco or - dare I say it - Hilary Mantel. Don’t believe it? Try it.

Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls

Now a very good movie and a truly excellent stage production, but the best version of the story is still the original book. (And by that, the real original, with the Jim Kay illustrations.)

A Monster Calls is about Conor, a young boy with a sick mother, who, at his time of greatest need, is visited by a ferocious monster. Much to Conor’s surprise, the monster proceeds, not to devour him whole, but to tell him stories. I’m not going into this more, because I’ll start crying again.

Who would I give it to? In troubled times, I think we all need it. But this may be one of the most insightful books about grief and love ever written. It is a powerful and therapeutic story, for readers of all ages going through troubling times. This is the correct edition.

(Another tangent. Fantasy, perhaps more than any other genre, has a tendency towards biblionarcissistic navel-gazing. The idea that books qua books are powerful and magic, and readers are inherently special. It is formalised (thanks Gary Gygax!) in most fantasy worlds’ concepts of magic: special people read special books and achieve powers well out of the reach of other, mere mortals (generally the ones that have, prior to that, been giving the protagonist a Dark Ages swirly). Obviously this is escapist and wonderful and very reassuring to underweight teenagers with thick glasses, such as this newsletter’s writer. But it also, too frequently, slides further down the slope into a frustratingly nasty intellectual elitism. I read a celebrated short story recently that was essentially constructed around the premise of a doctor throwing off the shackles of medicine and becoming a playwright to save the world, which, especially right now, feels like the most convoluted defense of a liberal arts degree I’ve ever read. Aaaaaanyway, to return to the point - one of the reasons I love A Monster Calls is that it puts stories in their place. Important narratives that explain or compel or motivate, but not inherently magic in their own right. Just reading a book isn’t inherently significant, it is what you do after that has meaning.)

Henrietta Rose-Innes’ Nineveh

Another venture into magical realism. Katya is an ethical exterminator (a profession that feels even more timely and contemporary now). She has an empathy for the vermin she dissuades, and refuses to use lethal methods. Hired to cleanse an entire, newly-built suburban estate, Katya soon realises this is no ordinary infestation. More disturbing yet, she’s not the first exterminator to try - and her immediate predecessor, her father, has gone missing.

Exterminator noir is a pretty niche subgenre, but Nineveh is a delicately-constructed exploration of gentrification, capitalism, and family. It is - if you’ll pardon the ham-fistedness of this - just as much about the creepy-crawlies that we don’t see: the ones in the system, and the ones in ourselves.

Who would I give it to? Folks that like reading Booker longlists. Anyone fond of Márquez, Bolano, Camus, Paul Auster, or Toni Morrison. Don’t even use the ‘fantasy’ word. Just say it is award-winning South African small press. Try to use the word ‘craft’ in there somewhere, and then praise their beard. Get clickin’.

Gail Simone’s Red Sonja

Gail Simone wrote 18 issues (now collected in three volumes) of Red Sonja. Sonja, she of the chainmail bikini and improbable architecture, was a character that’s always languished in the more dubious aisles of comic book stores. Simone’s run presents ‘she-devil with a sword’ as a powerful, feminist, bawdy and flawed heroine.

Red Sonja deserves a place on this list for two reasons. First, in and of itself, Simone’s run is a brilliant return to fantasy’s joyously pulp origins. It is wildly entertaining, with twists and turns galore; high stakes and human interest; love, lust and revenge. There are evil sorcerers and noble knights and cunning rogues and angry gods. The three volumes (especially the second) earned their place on this list for being the best examples of sword & sorcery’s joy and mayhem.

Second, this run of Red Sonja reclaims - or, more accurately, reinvents - a classic fantasy icon, in a classic fantasy subgenre - but in a progressive, inviting, unproblematic way. The original Red Sonja is a hot mess (literally), and that includes its pre-knock-off predecessor ‘Red Sonya’, created by Robert Howard. Hell, future Red Sonja issues have been hot messes: it is interesting to see that how, outside of Simone’s creative control, the way that the stories and art have often reverted back to the dodgy old days. What Simone proves, elegantly, is that you can have all the fun - both bawdy and brainy - of fantasy’s past, but also elevate it out of the misogyny, racism, and general ick.

Who would I give it to? Fantasy readers, honestly. Being a comic book with a fairly brief run, from a mid-sized publisher, this sailed under the radar of those that stick to novels. It is well worth seeking out. The first volume is here.

Also ran

Five other books or series that I can’t get out of my head and/or recommend all the time. However, I think their ‘classic’ status is pretty secure, so I’m feeling compelled to shill them:

  • Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea and The Compass Rose

  • Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora

  • Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave

  • Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimeaus series

And two others that have a great deal of resonance to me, personally, as I have written literally tens of thousands of words about them elsewhere:

  • K.J. Parker’s The Folding Knife (here)

  • Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance Chronicles (here)

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If you’re still (!?) looking for more to read:

As with, I dunno, everything else in life, I’m not sure when newsletter service will be returning to ‘normal’:

Take care of yourselves.