Recommend a fantasy novel to someone who doesn't like fantasy.

Here's the deal. I hate The Hobbit. You really seriously couldn't pay me to read Lord of the Rings. I read the first page of the first Harry Potter book and thought, well, it's for kids. Why would I want to read this when I'm not a kid? And that's not even going into what appears to me from the outside to be a remarkable lack of imagination - they're trainee wizards, so they ride around on broomsticks. Broomsticks? Are you shitting me? That's the best you could come up with?

I read Pullman's His Dark Materials and wasn't impressed. The heroine - and here I'm vaguely recalling - doesn't particularly in my recollection so much discover what's going on in her world as get told it straight out by various adult protagonists. Dull. And then there's the talking bears. Talking bears? How did they get that way? Did they evolve? Or what? Now, admittedly, this is a kid's book, and if you're young enough you're probably happy to just accept that at face value. But me? An adult? Eh. Now, I've got talking fish in my books, but they either evolved that way, or were radically redesigned by another species using highly advanced technology. I'm the first to admit to the liberal use of handwavium in my stories, but to me magic is the worst kind of handwavium - oh, it's magic, as if that explains everything. Science has a clear definition, but what, then, is magic? I have no clear idea.

On the other hand, and just to prove what an enormous hypocrite I really am, I'm a big fan of Jonathan Carroll, undoubtedly a fantasy writer. Why this should be so when I hate the former kind of fantasy isn't a question I can't immediately answer, except insofar as to say that it has something do with being set in our very real world.

It's that connection that gives me something to hold on to that Lord of the Rings does not - with the latter, my first reaction on hearing about it as a kid was, where is Middle-Earth? Is it on Earth? An alien planet? Where? And if I didn't know, I couldn't possibly figure out why on Earth I should care about anything set there.

Now, I'm not saying my position is unassailable. I just could never bring myself to believe in fantasy worlds of the aforementioned variety. SF was the literature of human endeavour, of pushing back the limits of the known world and coming to first understand and then control it. It was about the future, the coming world. Fantasy seemed retrogressive, backwards, wishful thinking for some impossible age that never could be and never would be.

Let me just stress here that I'm talking here about my feelings as a young reader. I'm not dissing the genre, just trying to say why I never really got along with it when I was growing up. If someone gave me a book with dragons in it when I was a kid, I'd say, how does something that big get airborne? How does it breathe fire? How come they never explode in mid-air?

Undeniably impossible things happen in Carroll's books, but somehow it's the dissonance with reality and the jarring effect it produces that's so effective for me. Here's what appears to be the normal world, and suddenly it turns out there's something about it you don't understand, that you can't explain, and that might be very, very threatening. That I can appreciate; that, somehow, resonates with me emotionally. The world appears to be one way, now it appears to be another. The tables have been turned.

Same with Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves, one of my absolute, all-time favourite works of fiction. It's magnificent. You never, ever, ever find out just what it is haunting the echoing, abyssal halls of the endless house; you only know that its realm may be infinite. This is people from our world, exploring the edges of what constitutes our reality, and retreating in fear from whatever may lie just beyond that edge, just beyond the known, the safe and the quantifiable. Somehow, this has satisfied me entirely through several re-reads.

A work closer to traditional fantasy that is also one of my favourites is Robert Holdstock's equally magnificent Mythago Wood. But I don't think of it as fantasy, I always thought of it as science fiction. The protagonist and his father have clearly thought out and developed theories as to the nature of Ryhope Wood; they take the apparently magical and make an attempt to quantify it, to understand it and ultimately control it where a thousand lesser writers might simply have had their characters take the apparently magical at face value. They are, again, exploring the absolute limits of our reality, and looking a ways beyond into the face of the terrifying unknown.

Even closer to traditional fantasy is Michael Moorcock's The War Hound and the World's Pain. I've not really read much Moorcock fantasy, but this is one of the few. And, it's great, perhaps because it's set in our own (past) world. Somehow, that makes all the difference.

So here's a question for you. Given that I really, really don't get on very well with the traditional stuff, what would you recommend to me to read? Or, what fantasy would you recommend to someone who really doesn't get on very well with fantasy at all?

For what it's worth, I've been considering Lev Grossman's The Magicians because it's getting such good write-ups. I read an excerpt that got me interested for various reasons, so I figure it's worth checking out. Any opinions?


Anonymous said...

I'm not a huge fantasy fan either, but this year I've picked up two excellent novels that are absolutely fantasy and they completely blew my socks off. And they are...

The Painted Man by Peter V Brett. This one is just amazing - the world is believable and has such depth to it. The characters are great and I just could not put it down.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This is just on another planet when it comes to storytelling, it truly is amazing. It does have some typical troupes of the genre, but the way in which it is written and the way the story is told brings it up another level.

Before this year I would barely look twice at a fantasy book, but these two books are at the top of the list when it comes to the best stories I've read this year.

Ian Sales said...

See my post on this very subject here. Perhaps not all of them will be to your tastes, but you should certainly give Keith's Lord of Stone a go.

Niall said...

Based on what you say above, I can't imagine you getting all that far with either of Mark's recommendations -- both of which are secondary-world fantasies, and Rothfuss in particular is in the classic Tolkienian tradition. I'd recommend something like Kit Whitfield's In Great Waters, which is an alternate history with un-romanticised, animalistic merfolk; or Rana Dasgupta's Tokyo Cancelled, a fabulistic story-suite more in the Carroll tradition; or Ian R MacLeod's The Light Ages, another alternate history, in which a magical substance is discovered that powers the industrial revolution.

Anonymous said...

Interesting challenge, but fortunately the answer is simple:

The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

It's fairly large, but what sets it apart is that it is exceptionally well written. That's not to say fantasy is prone to bad writing, but when a fantasy novel can stretch to 800 pages, it can be a real chore.

In The Name of the Wind, not a single word is wasted. I'd go so far as it's a work of genius, but then I wouldn't want to build it up too much.

The best part is that while it's fantasy, it's about people first and foremost. Sure, there's magic, some swordplay, even a dragon, but that's all incidental. There are no tongue-twisting names, no creakingly dull "epic fantasy" politics.

I'd call it fantasy for people who don't like fantasy, but that wasn't the author's intention when he wrote it. He just wanted to write a damn good book, and he achieved it.

If you don't like fantasy, you will love The Name of the Wind.

Bob Lock said...

I'd suggest Joe Abercrombie's The First Law Trilogy which starts with The Blade Itself. Very tight writing with believable characters and some clever ways of portraying them (changes in POV follow the traits of the character speaking etc... difficult to describe but very nicely done). The characters themselves are believable. Refreshing to see that not all heroes are swashbuckling, handsome and ride white horses. Joe's in fact are probably the opposite.
When you've flown through the trilogy (which is a given) then you'll have the treat of reading Best Served Cold which is a standalone book that uses some of the characters in the trilogy and is set in the same world. This is (imho) Joe's piece de resistance and is a gritty tale of revenge.

Another book I'd recommend is Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains which is a change from his normal SF genre and is his first fantasy novel and is a stunner.

Helen said...

Hm - On first thought I'd also recommend Abercrombie, Rothfuss - also Scott Lynch and Steph Swainston. They're all published by Gollancz and have a similar non-traditional fantasy tone - gallows humour and a hard edge.

But while there's no epic poetry to contend with, in some ways it's fantasy for fantasy fans who want more substance or a twist on the traditional, not necessarily the stuff to convert SF readers. In all of them, you're thrown into some serious world-building, and unlike in (good) SF, the parallels are still more often with fantasy than with reality. So whether your like them or not depends on how solid you think the other elements are (I think Abercrombie's the best in this sense - Glokta in the First Law trilogy is an inspired creation).

The book I always fall back on when hit with the 'Tolkien sucks therefore fantasy suck' (which I don't argue with - too many bloody elves) is Neil Gaiman's American Gods. One, he's a great writer, two, the central premise is simple but he draws out fascinating complexities, three, he grounds this story based on real myths (i.e. Norse Gods & folk tales, not elves with flowing locks and their own personal lighting crew) in a solid, tangible contemporary American Mid-West.

Or you could go to the classics: Try the Odyssey (although be careful what translation you choose), or Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf, or Ted Hughes' Tales from Ovid. Sure, it's poetry, and there's magic, and weird shit happening for no plausible reason, but it's powerful stuff if you let yourself get pulled in. It's always a mistake to think that we're better at fantasy now just because we don't actually believe in it.

Jack Deighton said...

MacLoeod's The Light Ages is good character driven stuff but if you read the edition I did it will be littered with annoying typos - some where a sentence has clearly been changed at some time but parts of it no longer fit the new form.

Jack Deighton said...

Oops. Spot my typo...

Ed S. said...

1. Abercrombie's Best Served Cold for some sword type fantasy. A stand alone book which is rare. Alternatively there's his earlier trilogy with the remarkable character Glokta. Others have suggested the Rothfuss book, but that's part of a trilogy and we'll all be dead before he gets the remaining two books out.

2. Jeff Vandermeer City of Saints and Madmen.

3. Jon Courtenay Grimwood End of the World Blues. Mystery and light Fantasy.

4. Robert Sheckley's Dimension of Miracles for just fun humor. I like the chapter where the protagonist meets the contractor who won the contract from God to build Earth who admits to having cut corners and done a rather shoddy job and is feeling a bit guilty about the whole thing. I liked it for light reading a few chapters at a time in between other books.

5. Maybe Scott Lynch Lies of Locke Lamora. Part of a trilogy and again the author has stalled out and the third book is constantly postponed.

6. Richard Morgan The Steel Remains. So many people have praised this book but I personally feel it's only average if not outright mediocre once you strip away it's shock elements. Read this so you can confirm my suspicions that I've somehow fallen into the Bizarro universe where bad is good.

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

There's definitely some cool recommendations here, though to be honest there's a reason why people who know me personally can get a bit frustrated when it comes to recommending me stuff. I'm so picky.

Mark - I checked out a sample of the Rothfuss, but I just can't get into the secondary world vaguely medieval stuff, like Niall says. I've tried, but it just doesn't do it for me. On the other hand, I've heard quite a few people raving about his stuff, so I'd personally put it in the 'wouldn't necessarily buy it, but would read if someone loaned me a copy' box.

I do like Richard Morgan's stuff, enough so I did contemplate The Steel Remains for two reasons, despite it being way outside of what I would under any other circumstances be prepared to read: 1)It's by Richard Morgan, and that makes a difference. 2)I read a review somewhere that strongly hinted it was really sf in disguise(I seem to recall something about lizard-like creatures who retreated across an ocean in 'fire ships' and thought, hmm, fire ships and lizards, and did wonder if that was indeed what he was doing.

Abercrombie: his stuff does sound interesting, but still that secondary world thing I can't get my head around. On the other hand, I've got a little extra motivation to take a look at some online samples. Will be checked out.

Light Ages: I, er, have a similar problem with alternate history stuff, I'm afraid, with a few exceptions like Man In The High Castle. If it didn't ever really happen, I can't quite believe in it in most cases. I am completely two-faced about this, mind.

I'm surprised nobody mentioned Michael Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I tried, gave up after a few chapters. I couldn't read any more once the er, elves, turned up. Sorry about that.

The Odyssey! Absolutely. I would probably just think of it as ancient historical sf. But I really should get around to it, yes.

American Gods: I used to read a lot of Gaiman's comics and really dug them in my early twenties, though I haven't read them since. Something about the comics medium made it easier for me to accept things I always found it harder to accept in straightforward fiction. I tried Gods, but it left me fairly unaffected. Not sure why. On the other hand, some of his short fiction is absolutely stunning.

Niall - I haven't heard of some of the books you've mentioned, but I'll definitely be looking them up to see what they're all about. Thanks for that.

Ian! I've thought about Lord of Stone, so thanks for the tip/reminder. Your blog entry reminds me that I've tried reading Gene Wolfe - tried really, really hard, that is, but failed. I think Free Live Free was the final nail in that coffin.

I had a go at John Crowley years ago and couldn't get more than a couple of pages, but he's long overdue a reassessment on my part.

Lucius Shepard - f*****g huge Shepard fan, here, but can't read the Griaule stuff, although I've tried. My eyes literally slide off the page. Shepard should really have been on my list of 'fantasy writers who actually do rock my world'. Except when he's writing about dragons.

(Now you're getting some idea of how frustrating it can be to recommend me stuff)

Ed - I've read some short bits and pieces by Vandermeer, but somehow failed to get around to reading any of his actual books, something I may have to correct some time soon. I do have Veniss Underground, but haven't got around to reading it yet (though my understanding is it's more sf than fantasy).

And the contractor who built the Earth ... by Sheckley ... hey, wasn't Sheckley a huge influence on Douglas Adams (though I've read very, very little Sheckley myself)? Contractor - Earth - crinkly bits. Oh Douglas. Really?

Lawrence said...

Most of my suggestions have already been made by others.

I would second what has been said about Abercrombie. Granted it is a typical fantasy setting, but you could almost call it anti-fantasy. He takes as many of the tropes of traditional fantasy as he can lay his hands on, tortures them to death, then revives them as flesh-eating zombies!

You really wouldn't like Rothfuss. He writes brilliantly, but it is high fantasy redivivus.

No one has mentioned Tim Powers yet. His Anubis Gates is a must read. Justina Robson’s Quantum Gravity series is rollicking good fun. And, in a similar vein are the Borderlands stories by various authors.

Niall said...

I think Dasgupta has some of the reality-with-a-twist appeal you mention enjoying in Carroll. Other writers in this vein would be Jeffrey Ford or (most of) Kelly Link. And Mieville's The City & The City. Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest is perhaps a bit more of a stretch. M John Harrison, maybe?

Sounds like The Light Ages probably isn't your thing, but I'd still recommend giving In Great Waters a go. One way of reading it is as portraying an alien perspective, which I think it does very well.

re: The Steel Remains: there are definitely hints that it's not straightforward fantasy, so maybe that would be one to go for.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiousity, have you read Peter Hamilton's Dreaming Void and Temporal Void (third one out next year)? They would pretty much hit the nail on the head for what you're after regarding fantasy.

The books are split between a sci-fi setting and a fantasy-type setting, both firmly grounded in the same galaxy and each having an effect on the other.

Worth checking out regardless of genre, some excellent stuff in the books.

Unknown said...

its the 4th here in nz and nova war has just been released now im waiting at my front door for the courier to come!

Gary Gibson, science fiction writer said...

Hope it's there soon, Andy.

Niall - read Ford's Physiognomist and it was delightful, the writing got me clear past my secondary-world block. I tell people from the first page it reads like the greatest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp movie never made. Lawrence - agree on Anubis Gates, it's a lot of fun. There's another Powers book, can't remember the name, that's my favourite of his, I think.

Thinking about this, I realise what I like tends to be stuff that might be described as 'intelligent urban fantasy that would keel over and die instantly if you tried to wrap it in a cover of some chick with a dodgy tattoo and a big sword', assuming you could use such a label on writers such as Danielewski or Carroll. Let's say there's a narrow niche of 'fantasy' that particularly inspires or interests me. Mindbending stuff that can make me feel for just a moment that the real world I live in maybe isn't so permanent after all. A borderline book that does that quite well is John Fowles' The Magus.

Ach, I'm such a picky bastard. Even though it's secondary world to an extent, I'm still thinking about Grossman's The Magicians. What drew me into an online sample was a reference to the characters studying physics and mathematics. That intrigued me because of the character-awareness of the rules of the *real* world, and that strikes me as a lot different.

Another book that sounds interesting is Mark Teppo's Lightbreaker. I've read some interviews that make it sound like he's also doing something different. We'll see.

Anonymous said...

Ach, most of my suggestions have already been suggested, but I've just bought a copy of Nova War in a Glasgow bookshop so that might get me off the hook.

Unknown said...

Anything by K.J.Parker
Book Of The New Sun - Gene Wolfe
The Dying Earth Series - Jack Vance
The Gene wolfe and Jack Vance stuff is set on a future earth so is kinda science fiction, although they are considered to be fantasy. The K.J.Parker stuff is very dark and realistic, without any magic, so maybe is for you.

Kenneth Eriksson said...

I can recommend Tad Williams' "Otherland" tetralogy which is a crossover between fantasy and SF.

The Antihippy said...

Hi Gary,

Some people have made some good suggestions, I want to make a couple too!.

Have you tried Strange & Norrel? That is a weighty tome and has to be one of the best fantasy novels I've ready recently. I liked it because it wasn't Tolkein and it wasn't set in the middle ages. Check it out...

Someone mentioned "Otherland". I am going to say that the first couple of books are excellent but after that...

And if you are going to try KJ Parker only read her 1st trilogy. After that she's not worth it. I particularly enjoyed the Colours in the Steel but then I am a fencer.

What drives me crazy about modern fantasy is that people say that it's edgier and better written, when what they mean is that author's put in a sex scene, have them take drugs and have the characters swear as though that makes up for the obviously childish books.

I see someone else mentioned Viriconium. I bet you're already au fait with M John Harrison anyway but how about reading Zelazny's Lord of Light?

I have to pick you up on this, "The Odyssey! Absolutely. I would probably just think of it as ancient historical sf. But I really should get around to it, yes. " I assume you've not read it then? Really, it's not SF, not even if you attempt to put yourself in Greek shoes... not by a super duper long shot. It's great though. I'd read the Aeneid too.

Mark Teppo said...

So, yeah, there's that Lightbreaker book. No comment there. :)

However, I can't help but point you toward this, especially with your love for the Danielewski.


I should prep you for it, but I won't because I think you'd prefer to discover what it is for yourself. And, yes, because you don't get that blank look when I mention Danielewski as a reference point, I'd love to hear your thoughts on it.