MIND MELD: What Fantasy Series is Underrated?
We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see what they said…and be sure to tell us your picks below!
I always thought The Kingdom of Thorn and Bone quartet by Greg Keyes should get more attention. It’s gritty epic fantasy with archetypal/iconic character types, but despite occasional feints in the direction of being about “good vs. evil” the actual underpinnings of the world are a whole lot stranger than that, with many shades of gray. It’s also admirably *weird* — for one thing, despite taking place in a fantasy world full of knights and monsters, it also has some oblique and oddball connections to our own world. (Maybe that last part is why it’s not more popular?) Nevertheless, I want an Aspar White action figure, and it’d make a great setting for a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game.
That’s a tough question. I’m really torn between Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. books and Barry Hughart’s Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. They’re both fabulous series and both are undervalued for-I suspect-the same reason. They’re funny but they’re not humor.
I don’t think that our genre does well by books that take funny seriously. Pure light humor of the romp variety can do well, look at Aspirin’s Myth series or more recently Anton Strout’s Simon Canderous series, but more serious books that also make people laugh often seem to fall into the cracks between sub-genres.
I’m not sure whether that’s a failing of marketing, or if it’s because humor is so subjective, or that things that walk a narrow line are more likely to fall off, or what. But it seems to me that serious books that include more than a relatively slight element of humor often suffer in the f & sf world. The Garrett books are some of Cook’s best writing but they tend to be vastly overshadowed by the Black Company. Likewise Hughart, whose books have fallen out of print, which is frankly a crime against the genre, since they’re simply brilliant.
In life the dark and the light are often inextricably mixed. Things that hurt, or make us think, can also make us laugh. I wish that fiction that did the same was more popular.
Much to my professional jealousy, I realise looking over my bookshelves that most of the series I really love have already acquired the level of respect they deserve. It seems that whenever I discover a really great book it then turns out people got there years before me and it’s already a hit, or I progress further into a series and end up disappointed with it.
David Farland’s Runelords is an example of that – I loved the first two but then it started losing some of its spark and, checking Amazon, the series seems to be ticking along without any clear end in sight. It wouldn’t surprise me if some say Greg Keyes’ Kingdom of Thorn and Bone, but having enjoyed the first two enough to keep reading I found myself wanting the bad guys to win in book 3 and never finished it, preferring his earlier works (and the series there, Age of Unreason, was a bestseller so doesn’t qualify). Ricardo Pinto’s trilogy started with a real bang, but book 2 took the characters out of the setting and was so dismal, despite the writing skill displayed, there’s no way I will reread it top catch myself up after a seven year wait for the final volume.
The fantasy book I tend to recommend as much as any is the first of Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series, The Devil You Know, but I don’t believe I’m anything like alone in that so the series I’ll have to go for is Shadows of the Apt by Adrian Tchaikovsky. They’re good, honest epic fantasy books – stepping away from the usual medieval setting and introducing an intriguing twist in the Kinden that colours every detail of the world. Complex but not overly weighty, exciting and fast-paced, they’re books that make impatient for your next train journey/lunch break when you can ignore the rest of the world and immerse yourself in something more fun.
M.T. Anderson’s Thrilling Tales middle-grade series has a somewhat convoluted publishing history. The first two books were released by a different publisher and under a different series title than the third book, and maybe that’s why the series isn’t the huge seller I think it deserves to be.
For the record, the series consists of Whales on Stilts (the villains are whales who walk on stilts), The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen (a summer camp mystery) and Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware (a stand-out if, for nothing else, Anderson’s tour-de-force descriptions of an exotic Delaware you can’t get to from here).
Though consistently manic, zany, and ROFL-worthy, these books nail the reader with brief suckerpunch passages of beauty and poignancy. One such example comes from The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen in the voice of the anachronistically innocent and earnest Boy Technonaut Jasper Dash, who finds himself living in a cynical age with which he is ill-equipped to cope:
“Weightlessness, after all, is not just anti-gravity; it is learning to long for the sky more than the safety of the dirt.”
I misted up the first time I read that. Then I turned the page and resumed ROFLing.
I’d have to say that Roger Zelazny’s Amber series still blows me away. I have always thought that in many ways, his vision of Amber as the center of the universe, and all realities, including our own, being pale reflections of it, was truly groundbreaking. It’s a great vision combined with a cracking good action/adventure tale with lots of family politics, murder, intrigue, and magic — compulsively readable. It has one of the most intriguing beginnings of any series I’ve ever read, as Corwin wakes up alone and confused in a convalescent hospital, and follows what small leads there are back to a bizarre and dangerous succession of relatives who are never what they seem.
I’d also like to put in a good word for P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files series, which has a brilliant film noir quality … a vampire in gangland Chicago just seems to fit better than I’d ever have expected, and the characters are note perfect, as is the period detail. This series deserves to be a film … something in lush black and white, with shades of vivid crimson.
The first series that comes to mind is Chaz Brenchley’s Outremer novels. They feature Marron, a young queer protagonist who falls in love with a knight, whose story is told against a backdrop of Crusade warfare. The books are beautifully written, and feature an inventive magical system involving a symbiotic life-form that’s also a kind of naked singularity. Brenchley’s attention to medieval Middle Eastern and Mediterranean history is a pleasure (especially someone like me, who loves details), and his descriptive prose is sharp and elegant, imagining everything from a deadly air-elemental who charms a princess, to a memorable love scene involving a broken bone and exquisite tenderness.
I also enjoyed Brenchley’s 2006-07 series, Selling Water By the River, whose protagonist, Issel, cries tears of sparks, and prowls the rooftops of Sund while learning to master his water magic. Although this was a 2-book series, I felt that it deserved to be a trilogy.
You know, this is a great topic because there are a lot of underrated series out there and now I’ll get to see which I haven’t read and have a new reading list. I love it! I’ve pondered the question for awhile and can think of plenty of series that I love, but I keep coming back to the notion of underrated. By readers? By critics? I decided on a series that I love and decided it was underrated by the fact that if I recommend it to people, they haven’t yet read it. And that is Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels Trilogy (actually there are more books in the world and it’s become more of a series, but I’m focusing on the original three).
Let me tell you what I love about these books. They were unique when they came out, a melding of epic fantasy and horror, and included an ensemble cast, grittiness, humor, a cool world, excellent character building and a great story. There’s a kind of urban fantasy feel to it, though it is not urban fantasy at all and that feel blends well with the other elements, giving this series a really wonderful and unique flavor.
These are very violent books. Especially the first one and if you don’t like violence, you won’t like these. But it fits the world and it makes getting to the end feel really triumphant. For all the violence, there’s a really excellent payoff at the end. These are books that I wish I had written and so I recommend them to people all the time. I don’t know if they are underrated in general, but certainly they are not bestsellers that I’m aware of. So go get them and read them now. You won’t be disappointed.
I have to admit that the self-promoter in me wants to choose one of my own series. But I’ll resist that temptation and point you toward a trilogy by Lynn Flewelling. A disclaimer: Lynn is a friend who I met years ago because we’re represented by the same agent. She is also a wonderful writer. She builds rich, evocative worlds, she creates fascinating characters and breathes life into them, and she spins intricate, compelling narratives.
Nowhere is her talent more apparent than in her Tamir Trilogy (The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior, and The Oracle’s Queen, all from Bantam). The premise of the series is simple enough: An usurper king has taken the throne in a traditional matriarchy and, in response to a dark prophecy, has started killing off noblewomen to maintain his hold on power. When his brother’s wife gives birth to twins, one a boy and one a girl, the male child is sacrificed and the baby girl is magically “changed” into a boy. She is raised as a son, but she is haunted by the embittered spirit of her brother. I won’t give away more than that; you’ll just have to read the books.
This trilogy succeeds on every level. The books are beautifully written. Lynn’s pacing is excellent; the voices of her various point of view characters work perfectly. And she tells a terrific story, with lots of action, intrigue, and plot twists. But more than that, the Tamir books force the reader to think about gender and sexuality, about the boundaries between the world of the living and the realm of the dead, and about the determinative power of fate and destiny. This is epic fantasy at its best, but it’s also a ghost story, a love story, and, in the end, a deeply humane story in the truest sense of the word.
Lynn has received both critical and commercial notice for her Nightrunner series, and deservedly so. The Tamir Trilogy isn’t known as widely. I think that’s a shame. This is as good as any fantasy series I’ve ever read; it’s a series I wish I had written myself. And as a writer, I can’t give a higher compliment.
Ok, I’m going to cheat a little here, because there was once a time when if you were talking a fantasy series, you were not talking “novels.” From the pulps up through the 1970s, if you were talking a series of anything, you were likely talking about short stories published in the genre magazines. And, if you’re talking overlooked work today, that whole class of fiction — from Jirel of Joiry, to Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser — is probably almost unknown to most of today’s readers. Which is a shame, because much of what appears in print today draws its inspiration from this early stuff, directly or indirectly. And I’d like to draw attention to someone who may be to gritty noir urban fantasy what Tolkien is to the grand high-fantasy epic, and probably no one reading this knows who he is.
The author is Seabury Quinn, and the series is about occult detective Jules de Grandin. These stories, which began appearing in Weird Tales in the mid 1920s, featured an investigator who’s been called “the occult Hercule Poirot,” and were incredibly popular at the time. Popular enough that reader polls consistently had him beating such now-better-known notables as H.P.Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and C.L.Moore. And, throughout the pulp era, Quinn had more stories published than any other contributor. One-hundred-forty-nine stories between 1925 and 1951. (At least in words, more than enough to fulfill the three “novel” requirement.) While he may not have been as stellar an author as his contemporaries, his pair of occult detectives presages the X-Files, the Dresden Books, and any number of modern titles where we find the mixture of genre mystery or police procedural tropes with the supernatural in a modern setting.
Underrated? Nay, my peoples of SF and frakkin’ F, let us examine of under-read, since the reading of the book is even more important than the rating of them. In this case, we would be speaking of Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet.
These books are sofa king wonderful it’s not only giving me a slight headache, it is also giving you a slight headache. TLPQ is a fantasist’s fantasy, written with subtlety and brilliance for the reader who’s devoured every fantasy series under the sun, moon, stars, and hitherto unidentified manifestations of dark matter.
So what makes Abraham’s books so good? The magic system is not only unique, profound, and really cool, but it is also employed with great discipline, making for a fresh take on the whole Gritty / less-magic fantasy movement that is going full tilt boogie with no intention of stopping. Abraham, like the leaders of said movement, always portrays his world though the lens of moving personal relationships.
So if the books are so great, why haven’t they taken off? I think it goes back to the “fantasists fantasy” stuff I was jumping up and down about earlier. Abraham has done several things here that are unusual and take some time to sink in. The magic in this world is not mystical or martial; it’s economic, almost industrial. Whereas most fantasists (including me), rev-up the magic systems to help keep our readers turning pages, Abraham saves the big guns for the key moments of the epic. It’s the interpersonal drama that keeps the reader going. Finally, the dominant culture in Abraham’s world is pseudo South Asian, rather than pseudo European. I think there is a hunger out there for such fantasy, but that it takes a bit longer to catch on.
Readers who are opinionated and have read a lot of fantasy-and, really, ye who peruse Mind Melds written by the likes of lowly me, this means ye-and crave a fresh series must pick up these books.
I couldn’t think of one series that really fit this description, so here are four.
1. Charles Saunders, the Imaro books.
This series started to appear in the brief sword-and-sorcery heyday of the 70s, then fell out of print. The series was picked up by Nightshade a few years ago, and when they dropped it, Saunders continued to publish the work via Lulu under the “Sword and Soul” imprint. And I say yay to that.
This is fantasy adventure set in Nyumbani, an alternate Africa. The series is utterly untainted by the post-colonial crap that usually comes up when Africa appears in an adventure story. Saunders writes intensely, vividly, memorably. The first book begins a little slowly, bogged down in an origin-story that might be more powerful if it were implied rather than narrated step-by-step. But it’s a satisfying read, and the second novel (The Quest for Cush) is even better.
2. Leigh Brackett, the Eric John Stark stories (and her space operas generally). Maybe these don’t count as fantasy… but they weren’t very science-based fiction even when they were first published. Most of the high technology would count as science under Clarke’s Law.
Brackett’s sword-and-planet stories came out in the 40s and 50s mostly; they were the kind of fiction that serious sf writers pointed to and said, “I don’t write that stuff.” It’s mere pulp, and the pulpiest of pulp. The quintessence of pulp. If most pulp is grape juice, Brackett’s fiction is cognac. Beautifully written, elegantly plotted tales of adventure. I don’t know if it says anything essential about the human condition, and I don’t care; I just want more of it. Haffner Press has been bringing them back into print in gorgeous big volumes; the last one (Shannach, the Last: Farewell to Mars) is slated to appear this year.
3. James Branch Cabell, the Biography of the Life of Manuel. As far as I can tell, almost no one reads Cabell anymore, but there was a brief time in the 1920s when he was a big deal. His weird philosophical fantasy The Cream of the Jest acquired a small but devoted following among the literati (including fans like H.L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis). One of his novels, Jurgen, had the good fortune to be charged with obscenity by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and became a bestseller in consequences. (Their next target was Joyce’s Ulysses, which became similarly famous and infamous. 20th century literature owed these bluenoses a great debt.)
But Jurgen and Cream of the Jest were just two volumes in a strange, discursive series that proposed to follow the life of one character through his descendants and friends and their descendants over centuries and through various cosmoi and a bucket or two of pantheons. Cabell’s wit is so dry it can make a desert seem marshy in contrast, and when I say he wears his considerable learning on his sleeve I mean you to understand that he rams said sleeve and its accompanying forearm up the reader’s nose from time to time. In some ways, he is the most annoying writer I have ever read.
But he can also be hilarious. He’s tremendously imaginative and willing to wrap his imagination around subjects that have made some people uncomfortable (God; sex; the meaning of life, if any). And he has absolute control over every sentence he creates. He may not be the greatest stylist in fantasy, but he is one of the great ones and is worth reading for that reason alone. I’m not saying people should read everything he’s written, but his major works (Jurgen, Figures of Earth, Cream of the Jest, Domnei, The Silver Stallion) are worth reading and rereading.
4. Sherwood Smith’s Inda and its sequels have a big enough following that maybe I shouldn’t mention them here. But I’m not sure they are rated as highly as they deserve. This is a dense, deep, intense exercise in world-building by someone who knows how to do it–and who never forgets that characters have to be people, not just names. Wonderful work.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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