They say, “their work will keep you reading up so late at night”.
You know I want to, but how do I even know where to start?
So, if this is what you’re into, then go ahead and read on.
You know I’m all about that backlist. that backlist.
Iain M. Banks is one of those major British authors who don’t seem quite so popular across the pond, but in his homeland he was, until his tragically sudden death two years ago, arguably the single most influential SF voice of the last quarter-century. Put simply, Banks made space opera cool. In fact it wouldn’t be overstating things to claim that he defined the subgenre as we now know it, principally through his ten books based in and around The Culture.
The Culture is the ultimate lefty utopia, a galaxy-spanning post-scarcity anarcho-socialist meta-civilization with no money, no want, and no laws except peer pressure. This actually makes it kind of a dull place, story-wise; it’s no coincidence that most of the books are set on its fringes, concerning its black-ops arm Special Circumstances as they get their feet wet and hands dirty meddling in less advanced societies. The entire series is fundamentally a succession of arguments about late twentieth-century liberal interventionism. Indeed, one of the books is dedicated to ‘The Gulf War veterans’, and it’s a measure of the issue’s persistence that i’’s necessary to specify which Gulf War (the first, since you ask). Some stories are more overtly political than others, but if that’s not your bag it’s entirely possible to read them just for the trademark wafer-dry humour, or for warships called things like Falling Outside The Normal Moral Constraints and Of Course I Still Love You blowing the shit out of humungous amounts of hyper-cool spacestuff.
Because what really sets these books apart is the sheer scale of imagination: no one does sensawunda quite like Banks. My first experience of them was Excession, which I got through a book exchange while backpacking up the east coast of Australia. There I was in the gorgeous Airlie Beach, gateway to the Barrier Reef, with a newly minted PADI diving license in my pocket and time on my hands, and I could do nothing but squirrel myself away in a shaded corner of the hostel until I’d finished this book about sarcastic spacecraft with near god-like powers engaging in a proxy war over some alien artifact even they didn’t fully understand.
I regret nothing.
That said, Excession is not where I’d recommend others to start. Actually, fuck that. Start anywhere you like; even on an off day he was still effortlessly superior to most other writers at their absolute peak. But in the interests of playing along, I’d agree with the general consensus that Use of Weapons is the strongest Culture book. The best starting point, however, is probably The Player of Games. It’s a tightly defined story (suffering none of the bloat that crept in slightly as the series progressed) that leaves you well acquainted with the dark arts of SC while still being the ultimate exercise in nerd wish-fulfillment: you know all those teenage hours you wasted on gaming? What if they actually meant something? What if those skills could make you rich, could make you famous? What if they could make you king? Don’t tell me that doesn’t appeal to at least some small part of your soul.
Banks also wrote some stand-alone SF. If you don’t fancy diving straight into The Culture, Against a Dark Background is a great primer for his style and contains perhaps my favourite fictional weapons ever (“some of the earlier Lazy Guns, at least, had shown what looked suspiciously like humour when used”). And of course as plain old Iain Banks he also wrote ‘mainstream’ fiction: his debut The Wasp Factory remains a truly outstanding piece of work that’s lost none of its visceral power to shock in the thirty years since its publication. It’s The Culture he’ll be best remembered for however, and it’s a fitting legacy for one of the true greats of science fiction.
There are so many good SF authors that I could spotlight. But if I must choose one, then I’m going to go with Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was one of my earliest loves in science fiction. I love Bradbury’s use of language and his way of using SF situations to describe the emotions of now. Whether that “now” is when the stories were actually written or the now of 2015. He absolutely captures the human condition whether he’s showing current humans in unfamiliar circumstances, future humans on Earth, humans on Mars or humans in space. I love his way with words and turns of phrases, and characters, and setting, and mood.
Thinking about his backlist and a good entry point for someone new to Bradbury or even just new to science fiction presents an interesting question. I think it depends on the reader. Someone who likes their fiction just a little bit creepy with a bit of a walk on the wild side might want to start with Something Wicked This Way Comes. When I brought Something Wicked home from the library, it was magic. I remember reading it straight through and shivering with delight over the evil carnival. I had always been a tom-boy so I ran with boys and climbed up and down out of the windows in my imagination. I thoroughly enjoyed the mystic fight between good and evil that was played out in those autumn days in small town USA.
My own introduction to Bradbury actually came with Dandelion Wine. This novel is Bradbury doing what he did best—mixing the past with the future to construct an undeniable feeling of always now. It doesn’t matter that he is writing about his recollections of his boyhood in the late 1920’s or that he wrote it in the 1950’s or that the reader may encounter it for the first time in 2015…it still feels as though it has always happened and will always happened. Nostalgic and forward-thinking all rolled into one.
But short stories may be the best way to start with him. From the vantage point of 30+ years of reading Bradbury, I would now recommend his collection, I Sing the Body Electric, as a better entry for those wishing to try Bradbury for the first time. The shorter works give the full flavor of Bradbury’s powerful writing, but with plenty of variety—Bradbury offers up everything from innocent autumn days of childhood with ominous twists to full-fledged science fiction stories with a human touch. There are robots and bi-dimensional babies, historical figures and messianic Martians. There is, in fact, a little something for everyone.
Before I started blogging, Dan Simmons was one of my favorite authors. The first Simmons novel I ever read was the dark Carrion Comfort, which left a lasting impression on me and had me salivating for more of his work. I devoured Song of Kali, Summer of Night and The Hollow Man soon after, and eventually discovered Prayers to Broken Stones and Phases of Gravity. It wasn’t until 1995 when The Fall of Hyperion was getting lots of buzz that I realized I had somehow missed Simmons’ 1990 Hugo award-winning science fiction novel, Hyperion. I immediately bought the paperback and settled in to read. To this day, Hyperion remains one of my all-time favorite books, and for the Simmons newbie, I believe it’s a great place to start.
Here are the essential Dan Simmons books to read, in order:
- #1 Hyperion
- #2 The Fall of Hyperion
These first two books in Simmons’ four-part series will blow your mind! Honestly, I wasn’t as impressed with the second two books, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, so you can skip those if you like.
After you have these books under your belt, it’s time to switch to what Simmons does best: horror. I recommend the following three books:
- #3: Carrion Comfort – I read this sprawling story years ago, so I’m not sure how it would stand up today if I did a re-read, but one of these days I’m going to find out! Highly inventive, disturbing and addictive, you’ll fly through the pages.
- #4: Song of Kali – This short but powerful novel is one of the hardest Simmons books to read. It’s terribly sad and will make you cry. But don’t miss it. It’s one of his best.
- #5: The Terror – Written in 2007, The Terror has become one of my favorite horror stories ever. Simmons’ ice-laden tale relates the famous story of the Franklin Expedition of 1845, with a murderous unknown beastie thrown in to terrify the men aboard the stranded ship. It’s another door-stopper of a book, but you won’t notice because you won’t be able to stop reading.
So there you go! The beginner’s Essential Dan Simmons, written by one of his biggest fans! Getting cracking, people! You’ve got some amazing books to read…
Rob H. Bedford writes The Completist Column and curates Mind Melds here at SF Signal. Elsewhere, he is the Lead Book reviewer for SFFWorld, where he is also a Moderator in their discussion forums. In addition to over a decade’s worth of reviews at SFFWorld, his reviews and articles have also appeared at Tor.com and in the San Francisco/Sacramento Book. You can find him on twitter @RobHBedford ranting and raving about SFF, beer and whatever else catches his fancy.
Plowing through an author’s backlists can be one of the more rewarding things to do as a biblioholic. Finding those authors you haven’t read, enjoying said author only to then discover in the front matter of that book (or somewhere on Das Intarwebs) a list of older books, which can be a nice potential treasure to find. But, where to start with an author’s backlist? In the SFF genres, many authors write multi-volume series, which proves both easy and daunting. Easy because logic would dictate the first book in the series is the place to start (I’m thinking of Jhereg for Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos novels, Assassin’s Apprentice for Robin Hobb’s various linked series or Storm Front for Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files) but just as many authors have penned the occasional stand-alone novel in addition to their long-standing series work.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll start with one of my favorite authors: Tad Williams. He is primarily known for doorstopper epic novels (“The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series,” “The Otherland series”), but he has penned a couple of stand-alone novels that give a sense of his great storytelling abilities. First in my estimation among those is War of the Flowers, a cross-over/portal fantasy involving music and a parallel world powered by magic and faerie.
C.S. Friedman is another author whose work I’ve enjoyed with each book I’ve read. She’s published two trilogies (“The Coldfire Trilogy” and “The Magister Trilogy”) as well as some other stand-alone novels and duologies. Though her series work leans towards the fantasy end of things (even if there’s science fictional elements), her non-trilogy work leans more towards Science Fiction. With that said, I’d suggest folks interested in giving her work a try out This Alien Shore. On display are the alien cultures, great prose and vivid characters her work has been known to exhibit.
Gene Wolfe is an author with a fairly extensive backlist and a daunting one at that, since many of his works have received awards, award nominations and a considerable chunk of them (10 or 11 since some ignore Urth of the New Sun) fit in one milieu in addition to some books fitting into duologies and other series. So where to start? Fortunately, Grandmaster Wolfe also has penned a fair amount of standalone novels. On that note, I’d call out There Are Doors which is a slim volume, but quite potent. Unlike many of his novels, this one is set primarily on the Earth we know, but it can be considered a ghost story of sorts. In There Are Doors, readers will find the layered narrative, thick plot, damaged protagonist for which Wolfe is known in his other work. I’d also give a slight recommendation to Wizard Knight since although published as two books, it was a case of a single novel split on publication. Also like many of Wolfe’s novels, these novels almost beg for multiple readings.
It’s tempting to suggest to a new reader that they discover an author’s work via the same route that you did. My literary love affair with Neil Gaiman began, as I imagine it did for many others, with American Gods; from there, and with the desperation of the newly addicted, I found my way to Neverwhere and Stardust. I can’t remember whether I read Coraline before or after Anansi Boys came out, but I do know that during those years I also collected the entire ten-volume Sandman series published by Vertigo, along with a few other Gaiman graphic novels. On a particularly serendipitous day I discovered Smoke and Mirrors, a short story collection I hadn’t previously known existed, and on another I stumbled across Good Omens, his glorious collaboration with Terry Pratchett (recently and brilliantly dramatised by BBC’s Radio 4, available to listeners in the UK).
And then there was The Graveyard Book, and then The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more recently The Sleeper and the Spindle which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read yet. I need to get my skates on though, because Trigger Warning is out in February. And that doesn’t even include all of the collaborations and comics and children’s stories and short fiction and film and television scripts. Gaiman is so prolific it’s downright intimidating.
So where should you start?
I’m not going to suggest any of the novels, or even the iconic Sandman. My pick for someone new to his work would be Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders. It’s a breathtaking collection of short stories, poems, and a novella set in the world of American Gods and Anansi Boys. Gaiman’s range is prodigious, but Fragile Things manages to just about cover it: from Matrix-inflected science fiction to Lovecraftian horror, Gothic romance, ghost stories, riffs on fairy tales, retold myths, stories inspired by music, poems inspired by pictures, and the most terrifying tale of the afterlife that I have ever read. It’s sort of a Gaiman sampler – if “Monarch of the Glen” thrills you proceed immediately to American Gods, if “October in the Chair” breaks your heart you’ll want to bury yourself in The Graveyard Book, and if you find yourself wishing you could follow the “Instructions” then a visit to The Ocean at the End of the Lane is in order.
‘There are so many fragile things,’ Gaiman tells us in the introduction. ‘People break so easily, and so do dreams and hearts.’ And yet people and dreams and hearts endure, and stories most of all. Start here, and do not stop.
Before I started reviewing regularly I did a lot more backlist-digging: when discovering a new author I really liked, I’d obsessively look for anything else they’d written. (This was actually a bit more challenging before the internet came around, by the way. The old-fashioned paper version of the Encyclopedia of SF was indispensable, as were the ads for “Other titles by …” you’d see in the back of paperbacks.)
The two authors I’ve probably read most by are C.J. Cherryh and L.E. Modesitt Jr. Interestingly, they’re both authors who have written extensively in both science fiction and fantasy, which proved an interesting experience when randomly ordering titles from my tiny local bookstore. (Even more interesting, not to say mind-blowing, were the gradual revelations that at least some of their series started out as one genre and then suddenly threw in elements from the other ones, as in the case of Modesitt’s Recluce series.)
Recommending a starting point for these authors depends in large part on which genre you prefer and whether you’re in the mood for a long series as opposed to a trilogy or standalone. I’ve listed a few examples of each for both authors below.
C.J. Cherryh is probably best known for the Alliance/Union/Merchanter universe, and this batch of books can be approached in a number of ways. I actually don’t recommend starting with what most folks seem to start with, which is the award-winning Downbelow Station, because it starts off with a very clunky info dump and (in my opinion) it’s just not her best work. Instead, if you want to go into this series according to internal chronology, Heavy Time and Hellburner are a good way to go: they’re prequels to Downbelow Station and make that book’s info dump a lot more palatable. Another way to go are Cyteen and its sequel Regenesis, which take place on the other side of the main conflict presented in the series — as does 40,000 in Gehenna, the events of which take place entirely during one chapter of Cyteen.
C.J. Cherryh’s other long SF series starts off with Foreigner and is a lot more straightforward in terms of structure: just pick up Foreigner and then go forth in order of publication. The series is built as a series of trilogies (five of them so far!), each having its own separate but connected story arc and its own internal resolution, so my only recommendation here is to make sure you always have all three books for whichever trilogy you’re reading, because the individual books sometimes end quite abruptly.
Recommended shorter series in Cherryh’s back list are the five Chanur books and the Faded Sun trilogy. As for her fantasy, there’s quite as much of it and I frankly don’t think it’s quite up to the level of her best SF, but the Fortress books are really interesting.
L.E. Modesitt Jr. will probably always be best known for his Recluce books, but for some reason I never got around to reading most of these. I’ve read a handful of them, and one day when I have a few months off, I’ll read all of them, but at the moment I’m not the best person to give you recommendations on where to start, aside from maybe just going by publication date — which is after all how many of us read them.
His other Big Fantasy Series are the Spellsong Cycle, the Corean Chronicles and the Imager Portfolio, and of the three I vastly prefer the more recent Imager Portfolio. As often is the case with Modesitt, there’s a big disconnect between its internal chronology and order of publication: the second set of five books takes place way before the original trilogy, and there’s a ninth book on the way that takes place even earlier. When in doubt, go with order of publication.
I’ve actually always preferred Modesitt’s science fiction over his fantasy, because it’s usually much more tightly written and explores his most common themes in more interesting ways. His SF also doesn’t require as much of a time investment because they’re usually standalones, sometimes with a loosely connected sequel/prequel of sorts. My favorites of his SF are The Parafaith War (with its sort-of sequel The Ethos Effect), Archform: Beauty (with a kind-of sequel Flash) and The Octagonal Raven, but there are several others that are worth checking out. So in a nutshell, if you want to get started on Modesitt’s fantasy, I’d pick up the first Imager book, and for his SF any of the standalones I just mentioned.
Urban fantasy is big now. It’s a whole thriving genre with sub-genres of its own.
But once upon a time that wasn’t the case. Let me tell you of the days long ago, when vampires were shelved in the horror section, almost all fantasy took place long ago, far away and under watercolored covers, and an author named Charles de Lint was new on the scene.
All right. I exaggerate for comedic effect. But while urban fantasy has exploded, those of us above a certain age remember when it was new, and Charles de Lint was one of the pioneers of the field. If you haven’t encountered him yet, or if you’ve only brushed the surface, he is one of the authors well worth working through.
But as with any author who has been thriving as long as de Lint has, there is a considerable backlist, and knowing where to start can be overwhelming. So here, I will offer a few suggestions as to where one might begin.
If you prefer something self contained, there are few better books out there than Jack of Kinrowan, a volume that gathers two related novels (Jack the Giant Killer and Drink Down the Moon). This was my first foray in de Lint’s imagination, and remains my personal favorite. The fundamentals of urban fantasy are all here: a young, well fleshed out female protagonist, a sudden intrusion of faereality into the mundane, and a modern twist on an old fairy tale. But it’s fresh here and lacks what have become some of the more painful cliches of the genre.
On the other hand, Charles de Lint is known for his short stories, so if you want to begin with a nibble rather than a gulp, I highly recommend Dreams Underfoot. This collection is also the first set in his imaginary city, Newford, which provides the setting for a healthy percentage of his later works. From there you can move onto The Ivory and The Horn and his later Newford collections. The Newford books feature a recurring set of characters who age and grow over time, so pulling up a chronological list of their publications is wise here, but not always necessary. If you do fall in love with the citizens of Newford, you have the bliss of knowing that you have an absolute wealth of stories and novels about them ahead of you.
Enjoy the ride! There is no one I envy more than someone about to have the experience of reading de Lint for the first time.
Ah, backlists. Where to start? Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it…sometimes it’s easy. Other times, not so much. Sometimes an author is known for a singular work, making that the obvious choice for a starting point. Other times, it’s a series. Also obvious, if occasionally intimidating in its immensity (Here’s looking at you and Jack Reacher, Lee Child!) But most of the time, that’s not the case. Most of the time, you’re just left looking at a large list of books with little guidance on where to start. Then what? A younger, more naïve me would have (and did, abortively) decide to read through in the order they were written. Still a good strategy for interrelated works, but far from necessary or even wise when dealing with the broader bibliographies of such prolific writers as Dean Koontz or Stephen King. These days, I follow a general strategy of prioritizing books that come highly recommended by that author’s uber-fans, also taking into consideration such factors as what I run across at the used bookstore or which idea really grabs my attention. As it turns out, most of the authors I’m highlighting here I haven’t yet (and may never, given how prolific they are) read in their entirety—my slight case of OCD is horrified at the thought, but life is short and their backlists long. There’s a good chance that the perfect book to start with, I just haven’t read yet. And on that depressing note, let’s get to it!
Dean Koontz has an incredibly deep backlist, but some of his books tend to run together. Others are incredible. Personally, I would recommend starting with Odd Thomas, Life Expectancy, or The Good Guy. Odd Thomas and the resulting series is perhaps Koontz’s best-known work, featuring a snarky but unassuming fry cook from Pico Mundo who can see the lingering ghosts of the dead. Usually they want him to do something for them, like helping bring their killer to justice or preventing some future catastrophe. The initial book remains to this day the most beautiful and heart-wrenching tragedy I have ever read, and with the noticeable exception of the weak second book the entire series (Odd Thomas/Forever Odd/Brother Odd/Odd Hours/Odd Interlude/Odd Apocalypse/Deeply Odd/Saint Odd) is top-notch. Existing in the same world (unlike Stephen King, Koontz is not usually noted for featuring crossovers; this is the only one I’m aware of) is Christopher Snow, the protagonist of the chronically-unfinished Moonlight Bay trilogy (Fear Nothing/Seize The Night/Ride the Storm (tentative-TBA.)The unfinished nature of this trilogy is the only factor preventing me from wholeheartedly recommending it as well—we’ve been waiting for the final book in the trilogy since 1999. Koontz assures us it’s coming eventually; here’s hoping that he will actually wrap this one up now that the final Odd Thomas book is out. Life Expectancy…this one’s odd. But good. Jimmy Tock was born at the exact instant his grandfather died of a stroke, and his grandfather’s last words have been strangely prophetic. His grandfather spoke of five terrible days that would have to be endured. Now as Jimmy writes his memoirs, four have come to pass just as foretold. The fifth begins at midnight….
In The Good Guy,an ordinary man is given the opportunity to save a life when a shifty individual mistakes him for a hitman and slips him an envelope containing ten thousand dollars and a photograph of a woman. Unfortunately, before he can leave the bar the real hitman shows up and mistakes him for the client…. I’ve also enjoyed Lightning, a fun little tale involving time travelling Nazis, and Watchers, one of Koontz’s earliest odes to the noble Golden Retriever. Though I haven’t read it yet, I’ve been told that The Husband is one of Koontz’s best works. Take that as you will.
I don’t know that anyone explicitly recommended Stephen King to me. He’s just one of those authors that one ought to be somewhat familiar with, you know? As with Koontz, I’ve read a pathetically small segment of his backlog. Working on fixing that, slowly but surely, but my favorite King novel remains the first I ever read: The Shining. I would have to admit that The Shining legitimately creeped me out, and that’s not something I’ve ever really said about another book. 11/22/63 manages to push quite a few of my buttons, being a time-travel story about a guy trying to prevent the Kennedy assassination. The ending is never really in doubt, but that’s not really the point of this book. It’s about the journey. Some have criticized the length, and I suppose it could have been tightened up a bit, but with King you pretty much sign on for that. Offering a different take on the political “lone gunman” assassin, The Dead Zone is another favorite. Johnny Smith is gravely injured in a car accident, emerging from a five-year coma with the ability to see glimpses of the future or flashes of the past when he touches an object or person. All well and good, until he shakes hands with an up-and-coming politician who will bring about the end of the world…. Misery was decent, featuring an author kept captive by his psychotic “number one fan,” and while I didn’t particularly like the main character he certainly didn’t deserve his treatment at the hands of the deranged Annie Wilkes. Carrie was okay, and I appreciated how portions of the book were pitched as scholarly commentary on the events therein described, but I really didn’t particularly like Carrie herself (neither did King, according to On Writing, so that’s probably why.)
One thing you’ll notice as you get deeper into King’s bibliography is that everything takes place in the same world (or at least the same multiverse, for some of the more fantasy-based titles.) Places show up multiple times, characters cameo in other works, even passing references to the events of other books. The backbone of this shared universe is The Dark Tower, apparently a physical manifestation of all worlds and the focus of King’s only long-running series. I actually got my start with King when my library picked up the first volume of the Marvel Comics series that serves as a prequel to the first novel. The first book in the series itself, The Gunslinger, I wasn’t crazy about, but I’m told that the series gets better with the second book. I haven’t started in on it in earnest due to the massive number of tie-ins to the rest of his backlog that I have to read. Other books, yet unread, that come highly recommended by others include It, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Stand, and Insomnia.
I came to read S.M. Stirling kind of by accident. I had just seen Terminator 2: Judgment Day for the first time, and was walking through the library when I ran across Stirling’s follow-up trilogy of novels. Now that we have two (and counting) additional sequel films, we sort of take for granted that the story continues, but that wasn’t always the case. Keep in mind, at the end of T2, they save the world. For good, supposedly. And so it was for many years, until S.M. Stirling’s T2 trilogy (Infiltrator/Rising Storm/The Future War) returned readers to the world of the Connors in what is hands-down the absolute best of the multiple follow-ups to that stellar film. And that was that, until a buddy in college loaned me The Peshawar Lancers. Why didn’t I pursue the rest of Stirling’s backlog sooner? I can’t really answer that. I don’t know. The library didn’t have much of it, but they had some. Anyway, The Peshawar Lancers is a fun standalone that in hindsight also served as my introduction to the genre of steampunk, depicting a world in which the northern hemisphere was decimated in the late nineteenth century by multiple meteor strikes, prompting the seat of the British Empire to be moved to India. It would serve as an admirable introduction to Stirling’s work. Steampunk’s not your thing? I still think you’d enjoy it, but okay.
How about the old pseudo-sci-fi of Edgar Rice Burroughs? If you like John Carter and his habitable version of Mars and Venus, you should try The Sky People/In The Courts Of The Crimson Kings. In this version of reality, Mars and Venus were terraformed thousands of years ago and then “seeded” with life from Earth. This discovery lent new urgency to the Space Race, as both sides of the Cold War hurried to stake their competing claims before the others. Still not sold? Sheesh! Okay, well then maybe you’d like Stirling’s Change novels. These books actually make up two interconnected series, The Nantucket Trilogy and a longer series that has come to be referred to as the Emberverse due to the title of its initial book. In the Nantucket Trilogy (Island In The Sea Of Time/Against The Tide Of Years/On The Oceans Of Eternity,) the island of Nantucket is inexplicably transported to the Bronze Age, circa 1250 BC. All their technology still works, if they can get power for it, but when it breaks that’s it. Nantucket isn’t exactly known for its high-tech production facilities, which pretty much renders most twentieth-century tech irreplaceable. So now the question becomes “what next?” They’ve no idea what caused their sudden one-way trip, and so have no idea if and when it will reverse. They have to assume it won’t. And there’s a whole world out there.
In contrast, the initial trilogy of the Emberverse series (Dies The Fire/The Protector’s War/A Meeting At Corvallis) explores the world Nantucket left behind, a world much changed. Basically? Nothing works anymore. Gunpowder, steam, internal combustion, every technological innovation since the industrial revolution, it’s all out the window. Welcome back to the Dark Ages, they’ve missed you…. These two trilogies are really inversions of each other, following the same structure and model to explore either a world suddenly without the technology we rely on to survive or a world that has never seen that technology suddenly gaining (limited) access to it. I’ve yet to read the rest of the Emberverse novels, but it’s on my to-do list for sure, as is Stirling’s urban fantasy Shadowspawn trilogy (A Taint In The Blood/The Council Of Shadows/Shadows Of Falling Night.) The groaning bookshelf containing my “to-read” stacks also contain the standalone Conquistador and the collection of short stories Ice, Iron and Gold. Additionally, there are also a number of older books from the 80s and early 90s that are somewhat harder to get your hands on, so that’s an ongoing project.
People are of all sorts of opinions regarding the proper order to read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The books largely stand alright on their own, though there are some characters and overarching stories that span the entire series. Thus, I settled on simplicity—I’m reading them in the order he wrote them. You can follow my lead, or not. Wikipedia has a nice sortable list of all the books if you’d prefer to follow a particular character’s thread instead.
I could go on and on, but I think this is already going to need some heavy editing. I’m wholeheartedly sold on Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, and so obviously recommend starting with the first book there (Storm Front). Don’t give up on the series; the first two are decent books, but things really get going with the third book and increase exponentially in awesomeness with each subsequent volume. I’ve yet to start David Weber’s magnum opus, a space opera focused on the character Honor Harrington, but it comes highly recommended. As a strict series-minded individual, I’ll be starting with the initial entry, On Basilisk Station. Unless I decide to start with a standalone, like the copy of Out Of The Dark I found for a buck at the dollar store a couple months back. Jim C. Hines has a significant backlog, but I’ve been told by multiple people that it doesn’t hold a candle to his Magic Ex Libris series (the stellar Libriomancer/Codex Born/Unbound.) Take that as you will. I still plan to explore Kim Newman’s backlog, but so far all I’ve read of his are the stellar Anno Dracula novels. I’m sure there are others, and I’ll think of them the day after this goes live. That’s just how it works. Oh well, cue facepalm….
Can it be assumed we all recognize Kate Elliott? She has been publishing under the name since 1992 and in that time has put out 18 full length novels (with two more coming this year). If you have not read any of these books you are only doing a disservice to yourself. When discussing author’s backlists it is often so easy to just say ‘start with the first one published’ and move on; it is hard to understand why starting point questions get asked in many cases. But Elliott is different. Each of her series is unique; her website says she makes worlds and it is no lie. So where does one start in this impressive backlist?
For those who are craving that multi-book, epic series that will take your reading plans hostage for an entire summer go ahead and grab King’s Dragon, first book of the Crown of Stars series. This is your chance to stick with familiar territory; a medieval Europe vibe with all the trimmings. You know, the fantasy you grew up with. Comfort reading, maybe, but with plenty of little details to make it stand on its own. Crown of Stars was a series with a thousand little story lines tying into THE BIG ONE; with the fallout of an ancient war coming back to haunt the land in a truly spectacular fashion.
Or maybe you are hoping for something more compact and far different from the mold. Spirit Gate it is, acting as the first book in a satisfying trilogy. Quickly building several cultures, each unique rather than early parallels (differentiating greatly from the earlier Crown of Stars series), Elliot really shows her creative side on this one. Are you interesting in fallen guardians and eagle riding arbitrators? Or is watching people grow past harsh starting circumstances and thrive you thing? Crossroads provides it all, a unique fantasy stetting combined with characters a person can bond with.
Perhaps you like worlds with alternate histories and technological paths? (No need to get stuck on that common steampunk label, would you agree?) Start with Cold Magic and see how our world would be different with the Phoenicians as a major European power. With a blend of magic and technology the Spiritwalker trilogy may be Elliott’s most unique, but it also may be the most difficult to navigate. Nothing about the series is strait forwards or provides and easy answer. An argument can even be made that the protagonist isn’t the main character in her own story.
What was that questions again? Where to start on the backlist? A loaded query for sure, there is obviously no right answer. Except for me, because the notable missing series on the list above is Jaran; billed as a sci-fi with a fair amount of romance. It also happens to be the series I have not read any of. So while those new to Elliott have many choices I have only one obvious starting point from here on out. And look at that, I will have to go to ‘the first one published.’ The question wasn’t so hard to answer after all.
I swear someday I’ll answer one of these questions without resorting to Greg Egan! However, a few years ago I read through his entire backlist as part of the research for my book on his fiction. It’s fascinating to be able to watch an author’s career progress, compressing 20 years of publications into a year or two of reading. But I don’t think it’s at all necessary to start at the beginning and read chronologically (although that’s how I tackled it). I’d recommend starting with some highlights to see if this is an author you really want to invest your time in.
My default answer to “Where should I start with Greg Egan?” is with his first short story collection, Axiomatic. It gives a great overview of the themes that have given shape to his career, and if you don’t find anything there to intrigue you then you probably won’t be a big fan of his other work. It’s got one of the stories that launched his reputation, “Learning to Be Me.” That and “Reasons to Be Cheerful” will probably have the most staying power of any of his short fiction to date. “The Hundred Light-Year Diary” presages a concern with time and information flow that’s critical to the conclusion of his Orthogonal trilogy, and “Axiomatic” and “Learning to Be Me,” among others, dig into his thoughts on neurology and identity. Altogether it’s an easier on-ramp to Egan’s fiction than starting with some of the really math-based novels such as Incandescence or the Orthogonal books.
For people who prefer novels, I’m always a bit torn. My first exposure to Egan was Schild’s Ladder (2002), and I still have a soft spot for that one. My personal favorite is Diaspora (1997), which includes the magnificent chapter “Wang’s Carpets,” which became an award-winning short story on its own, and also includes mind-expanding depictions of higher dimensional spaces. On the other hand, I’m fairly convinced by Jo Walton’s analysis that Permutation City (1994) is the one that will stand the test of time. That book does almost everything with the idea of digitizing consciousness that it is possible to do, in a way completely different than the rest of the cyberpunk movement at the time. As Egan put it in his interview with me: “…My thinking at the time would have been less ‘Maybe I can join the cyberpunk club!’ and more ‘Maybe I can steal back private eyes and brain-computer interfaces for people who think mirror shades are pretentious, and do something more interesting with them.'”
David Gemmell is one author whom I can never sing enough praises about. Sadly we lost him nearly 9 years ago and for us fans, the world of fantasy shines a bit dimmer because of it. David was a prolific writer and wrote 31 books in his career for over two decades.
His Drenai series, which consisted of mostly standalone novels and a trilogy, was perhaps the series that fans look fondly upon. One can read it in various ways; one can always read it in its publication order. However I wouldn’t recommend that. Here is the chronological order for the series and this is one way to really get entrenched into the world of the Drenai and their surrounding kingdoms:
- The Knights Of Dark Renown
- Waylander II: In the Realm of the Wolf
- Hero in the Shadows
- The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend
- The Legend of Deathwalker
- White Wolf
- The King Beyond the Gate
- Quest for Lost Heroes
- Winter Warriors
- The Swords of Night and Day
Also the series focuses on many different characters across a period of more three thousand years. By reading the entire series this way, one can read into the things and events that play across centuries such as the old witch woman, the temple of the Thirty and the Bronze armor whose actions reverberate across a variety of books and people.
Another way you can read the series is to focus on the characters. There are quite a few of them with a few standalones mixed in between. So here are the individual series:
- Waylander – This book introduces Dakreyas and how he gained his reputation and the title Waylander.
- Waylander II – Set a nearly a decade after the events of the first book, we return to Dakreyas and his daughter as they are forced to come back to the danger they escaped.
- Hero in the Shadows – The final chapter wherein the Dakreyas gets to fulfill his heart’s wish while fighting against an evil that was banished eons ago.
Druss the Legend:
- The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend – This is the pivotal book that establishes Druss’ legend and showcases who he his and how he became to be the legend that readers know him to be in Legend.
- The Legend of Deathwalker – The book begins in the battle for Dros Delnoch but the main plot is set a little over 30 years ago wherein Druss and Seiben helped the Nadir from eradication. Quite an exciting tie-in into how Druss caused Ulric’s ascension.
- White Wolf – This book is Skilgannon’s introduction and features Druss in a big role.
- Legend – David Gemmell’s debut and the cornerstone of what is considered to be his legacy. Druss faces the nadir horde lead by Ulric and further solidifies his legend.
Skilgannon the Damned duology:
- White Wolf – This book is primarily about Skilgannon a Nashaanite warrior who blaze his own legend and give rise to a warrior queen whose legend will rival his own. This title also features Druss also in quite a prominent role.
- The Swords of Night and Day – The sequel is set over a millennium later wherein Skilgannon returns and is soon joined by another friend to end eternal evil.
- Hero in the Shadows – This book introduces the legends of the Illohir and focuses on their defeat.
- Winter Warriors – You should ideally read this book after finishing Hero in the Shadows, as the mythology will make so much more sense this way. This book is set nearly 300 years after the events of Legend and feature completely new characters. The antagonists make a return appearance and further reveal a lot about the war that lead to their banishment.
Tenaka Khan duology:
- The King Beyond the Gate – This book focuses on Tenaka Khan, Ulric’s grandson and his ascent. Very much a Kublai to Ulric’s Genghis, this book explores what makes Tenaka an outsider and doubly dangerous.
- Quest for Lost Heroes – This volume is the sequel to The King Beyond the Gate; But it doesn’t focus on Tenaka but four other soldiers who come together to save a village lass and is a continuation of the storyline in the earlier book but with different characters and set nearly 20 years later.
- The Knights Of Dark Renown – This is a fascinating retelling of legend of Arthur and his round table knights but laced with DG’s characteristic traits of redemption, heroism & finding one’s destiny. One of his darker tales with a wholly ambiguous ending, this is one of my favorite stories of his.
- Morningstar – Another solo story that explores the humanity behind legends. This tale was probably one of the rare stories that featured a 1st person narrative and also featured a complete anti-hero. Jarek Mace is possibly DG’s least likable character but he superbly constructs the story about how need and history often makes weird bedfellows.
The Rigante quadrology:
The Rigante series is of four books mainly consisting of two duologies separated by 800 years:
- Sword in the Storm and Midnight Falcon focuses on Connavar and Bane, the first two Keltoi high kings and their life stories. Absolutely riveting stories that tie in together because of shared characters, and much more separated by a generation. Also thrown in, is a gladiatorial storyline that will have readers riveted and an ending that certainly hints at a sequel that couldn’t be written due to DG’s early demise.
- Ravenheart and Stormrider are set 8 centuries later when the Rigante are facing a different set of colonial problems. Two different characters whose spirit names are the titles for this duology. Lastly these two books follow each other closely in their timeline and feature aspects of flintlock fantasy along with an epic climax. Spoiler alert Ravenheart has the best tearjerker ending that I’ve ever read in an epic fantasy book.
The Stones Of Power series – This series of books is loosely connected by the sipstrassi stones that allow the wielders to accomplish magic and feature different characters in different timelines/words.
Ghost King and Last Sword Of Power are a dark retelling of the legend of Arthur and the debacle that followed with Guinevere, Lancelotand Arthur. Not his strongest works but there are strong echoes of certain traits that would show up wonderfully in the Rigante series as well as certain Drenai titles.
Jon Shannow Trilogy:
- Wolf In Shadow
- The Last Guardian
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, this trilogy is a curious mix of a western, time-travel, and is the most SF of any of DG’s stories. Focusing on the Jerulsalem man Jon Shannow and the effect, the sipstrassi stones have had on the world. The following titles make this an extremely enjoyable trilogy and one that often features very high on most DG fans lists.
Historical works –
While this duology isn’t directly connected to the Sipstrassi, there is a tiny connection to it but it doesn’t affect the story much. The first book Lion Of Macedon is almost historical fiction as it traces the early life and rise of Parmenion and then crosses over into fantasy for the last third or so.
Its sequel Dark Prince is very much fantasy and then then goes onto show Alexander’s life including his troubled childhood.
The Troy trilogy:
- Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow
- Troy: Shield of Thunder
- Troy: Fall of Kings
This is perhaps David Gemmell’s best work with regards to historical fiction as he infuses the legend of Troy with geo-political wiles and then by focusing on the minro characters like Andromache, Aeneas and others. He and Stella wrote a trilogy that is a fitting end to his writing career. For those interested in reading a bit deeper into the trilogy and its characters can look up our piece on Fantasy Book Critic.
The Hawk Queen Series: The one series that is universally detested by his fans is the Hawk Queen one. With two titles; Ironhand’s Daughter and The Hawk Eternal, this series focuses on another anti-hero Sigarni. She though has a very difficult path and has some devastating events that define her psyche. Mixing time travel and some dark fantasy tropes, this series though doesn’t quite always resonate the way the author would have liked.
There’s also a few standalone titles which I’ll simply list as I believe I’m way over my welcome:
- Dark Moon
- Echoes Of The Great Song
- White Knight Black Swan
The first two are epic fantasy with an apocalypse like event looming and the last one is a fabled jewel that I’m still searching to get my hands on.
Shiny new releases are exciting, but often times its an author’s backlist that I love most. Most of my backlist reading has begun in the same place – the used bookstore. It was there that I discovered the works of Octavia Butler.
Butler (1947-2006) is an African American science fiction writer whose works are powerful and relevant to this day. Her works explore themes such as gender, race, and the use and abuse of power.
The best place to start is with Kindred, which blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy. It’s the story of a young black woman in the 1970’s who is transported back through time to the antebellum South. A lot of the time when you read books about history, it’s easy to excuse the past by saying “That’s just the way things were back then.” In Kindred, you can’t do that, because the protagonist is a modern woman with modern sensibilities who is completely blindsided with having to face the harsh realities of American slavery. Seeing the past through her eyes makes it seem more real.
Next, I’d recommend reading Unexpected Stories. These are two short stories that were unpublished during Butler’s lifetime, but were released last year. The first, “A Necessary Being”, is about a tribal society on an alien world where social status is determined by skin color. Each village strives to have a Hao (a blue person) to bring them leadership and luck, to the point that they are willing to use excessively forceful coercion to acquire and retain one. The next, “Childminder”, is about how mankind attains psionic powers, but instead of using them to break down barriers, uses them to enforce social inequality. It’s a pessimistic story, but integral to understanding Butler’s outlook on the world.
Once you’ve read these standalones, you can jump into one of Octavia Butler’s series. I’m currently working my way through the Patternist series, which starts with Wild Seed. The books are about a telepath named Doro who uses his powers and immortality to try to breed a race of psionic humans. In the process, he undermines their autonomy and treats them as chattel, all the while excusing his actions in the name of the vision that he’s trying to create. Alternately, you could read the Xenogenesis Trilogy, which features a third gender that can manipulate genetics, or the Parable series that explores the origins of an alien religion.
Wherever you choose to start, if you decide to read Octavia Butler’s works, you are in for a treat. Her science fiction is visceral and will drive home the human implications of what happens when power is abused and life is marginalized.
For my example of delving into an author’s body of work, I’m going to go with Mike Resnick, for several reasons. First, because he’s one of my favorite authors. I was reading his novels and short stories back when I was a teenager, and I’m still enjoying them tremendously today. Second, because he has such a sizable backlist, it can make even other experienced and hard-working authors turn green with envy. These tips can apply to other authors with extensive backlists as well.
First, I’m going to assume that you’ve already tried at least one book by the author whose backlist you’re eyeing, because someone whose opinion you trust recommended it to you, or because it won an award, or maybe the subject matter really appealed. In case you haven’t read Resnick’s work, my favorite book of his is Birthright: The Book of Man (1982). Although Wikipedia lists it as a novel, it’s really a collection of short stories, each readable as a standalone, which form the greater arc following the future history of the human race, from the development of interstellar travel and until our demise, millions of years later. The book is ambitious, fun, and serves as the backbone to dozens of novels spread throughout different eras of the Birthright universe.
If you are a fan of space western genre (which recently got an enormous boost from Firefly), Birthright is a great launch point for Resnick’s backlist. Otherwise, urban fantasy fans might try Stalking the Unicorn (1987). His Hugo-award winning Kirinyaga (1998) should be required reading for science fiction fans.
So, suppose you’ve tried one of these and liked it, and now you’re ready to dig in. What do you do?
1) Check sources like Amazon and Wikipedia to discover what other books are on offer. Amazon and other book sellers may already organize the books into series and sub-series for your convenience. In case of the Birthright books, there are many novels and they often comprise of 3-4 book cycles. I’d recommend following Birthright with Santiago (1987) and then the Soothsayer trilogy (1991-1993).
2) Authors will often write very different works in other genres. For example, Birthright books are fun but not outright humorous, whereas many of Resnick’s urban fantasy novels are quite funny. He has also written alternate history, steampunk, and non-speculative mysteries. So read the descriptions to make sure the books you’re picking up are something you’re likely to dig.
3) It’s not unusual for older novels to be repackaged as omnibus editions, sometimes under different names. If you’re really enjoying an author’s work and plan on picking up lots of books by them, be careful so you aren’t re-buying another printing of the same book. I wish I could claim I’ve never made this mistake, but that would be a lie.
4) If you read in e-book, be mindful of the prices. Some publishers price e-books higher than paperbacks. For a reader like myself, who is okay with both formats, but still somewhat prefers the physical book, this makes the decision to add something new to my already-groaning shelves a no-brainer.
5) Visit the author’s web site. They may have special bundles, information on where you can buy signed books, and other resources that will allow you to buy books in a way which will provide maximum level of support to the author.
6) If you’re a short story fan, Resnick has multiple collections out but, again, be mindful of duplication. I’m partial to The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures (2012). For other authors, look for the “Best Of” volumes first, and if you’re already a fan, for “Complete Works” of authors who have those. For example, From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown is a short story collection every fan of speculative short form must own.
Happy reading in 2015!
Backlists can be unnerving places. Like the vibrations of residual sounds that gather across the urban landscape in Ballard’s “The Sound-Sweep” (1960), the lists themselves resonate both discordant and dulcet—a deluge of aborted passions, financial desires, experimental tendencies not yet crystalline. Although Clifford D. Simak might produce a Cosmic Engineers (1950), he also invoked a most extraordinary allegorical worldscape in Why Call Them Back from Heaven? (1967) where the promise of immortality (undelivered) causes irrevocable transformations—the living live through life without living waiting for a resurrection where they can finally live. Robert Silverberg might shift entirely, as if on whim, from old-fashioned SF adventure where young Heinlein-esque space boys look for those “cool artifacts that do great things” in Across a Billion Years (1969) to The Man in the Maze (1969), a restless and uneasy rumination on pariahism and filled with delusions of self-martyrdom and all those other uncomfortable emotions we try so desperately to hide. Backlists are contradictory places.
In the last two years there is not an author I have read and enjoyed more than Barry N. Malzberg. He fears the encroaching mechanical age. It is a future where the newly insane will stumble into a priapic wilderness where meaningful connections are dulled, where our passions are now perfunctory monstrosities. His work plays with us, with storytelling. Each novel, each short story is a carefully wrought existential trap. There is something profoundly daunting about opening a book, Guernica Night (1974), where the spectacle begins with JFK, now a plastic manikin in Disney Land/Disney World, stumbling across a stage delivering fragments of his famous addresses. The same thing goes with confronting the metafictional labyrinth of his most widely read novel Beyond Apollo (1972) whose 67 chapters could be the ramblings of an insane astronaut, or a deliberate novelistic construct of said astronaut, or… There is humor here among the implanted memories, deconstructions, and proclamations of artifice, I promise. But where to begin?
At first Barry N. Malzberg had other pretensions of course, under his own name. K. M. O’Donnell was the name under which his first SF experiments took form. From his backlist I present Universe Day (1971). As with many of his novels, it was cobbled together from both previously published and new material. It begins, quite adeptly, with “Apocrypha as Prologue or: The Way We Wish It Happened.” The delusion is laid bare for all to see. Universe Day is future history Malzberg-style where the entire range of nightmares are experienced: the scatological realities of space life, the moment after a totem proclaiming humankind’s achievement sinks into the Venusian mud, and the sadness that sets in—as all the parades and parties wind to a close—when broken heroes are interviewed not by the adoring public but the welfare office…
Backlists are remarkable places.
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