From Joanne Harris’s Gospel of Loki going back as far as Evangeline Walton’s “Mabinogion Tetralogy” as well as Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light and Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, myths and gods from around the world have infused speculative fiction. What is your favorite mythic and god-infused fiction?
I grew up with the stories of two mythological systems – the Greek and the Islamic. While stories of the Greek Gods were highly entertaining (shocking once I was old enough to understand the incest and rape bits), it was the stories of the One Thousand and One Nights that were, of course, closest to home. The stories told by Shehrezade, who bought her life a night at a time, a story at a time, were equally thrilling and horrifying when retold by our parents to us (even though they edited out the particularly raunchy bits) – Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and his lamp, Sinbad and his incredible journeys were the quintessential myths, legends of our culture. The Big Bad of course, was very often a jinn, a spirit of fire from a parallel realm, a creature we could not but believe in the existence of – why, even the Holy Quran told us jinns existed!
Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics remain a favourite, as does American Gods. I’m constantly intrigued by the idea of old gods whose lives become smaller when people’s faith in them decreases, and Gaiman plays this out brilliantly of course, with a diverse cast of gods and goddesses from across the land, now in America and often behaving badly. I’m particularly fond of the chapter about Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba who is portrayed as a prostitute devouring her clients.
(Aside: there’s a great story about Bilquis being rumoured to have exceptionally hairy legs which Solomon found unattractive, so he had his jinns create some special hair removal system for. True story, honest).
I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan and though The Robber Bride is heavily infused with mythology too, it would be amiss not to mention “The Penelopiad” here. It’s a novella that’s structured similarly to a standard Greek play and is narrated by Penelope, who tells us about her life, both in and out of Hades. Atwood cleverly uses Penelope’s twelve maids as a chorus, offering up alternate perspectives to a story we may think we knew. I love stories about peripheral characters, and Atwood is a master of bringing those to life, too.
Another write who is just genius at bringing to life the Greek gods is Anne Carson, who frequently retells Greek myths cleverly, beautifully. Autobiography of Red reworks the 10th labour of Hercules’, yes, but this is the contemporary story of young Geryon, a young man with wings hidden away who falls for a charming man who breaks his heart. Her last novel, the incredible Red Doc> followed the same two characters as older, jaded men, ones who may have been gods but are so, so human. Carson’s take on gods and monsters, good and evil is just so intelligent, so compelling and so badass.
Speaking of badass, I’ve just read Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, which is about a young girl who discovers she has inherited the ability to mix murals with magic and can use her art to defend the power her lineage has carried for generations. While Sierra herself is a fresh, feisty voice, it’s the vibrant community she is a part of that drew me in, with their strong mythological systems and belief in spiritual magic and the importance of heritage. It’s an incredibly rich mix of Puerto Rican, Taino, Haitian, Afro-Caribbean mythological systems that co-exist within a thoroughly modern urban community – something I can personally relate to. It’s an important book. It’s also really fun.
This is a fascinating topic and as a speculative fiction fan, I’m always intrigued when authors eschew over-used mythologies in favor of other non-traditional ones. One of my favorite series is the “Detective Inspector Chen” series by Liz Williams that is a unique mix of Chinese mythology, science fiction, urban fantasy & even Hindu mythology to a small degree. The series focuses on Chen a police official in the city of Singapore Three who lives with his demon wife Inari and her badger. There are various gods and demons from Chinese mythology however the twist being that they interact in myriad ways with the human folk. This series smartly combined humor, technology and had a fascinatingly unique set-up. I can’t recommend this series enough to folks who want to read something different.
The next book I can think of is Palace Of Illusions by Chitra B. Divakaruni, which is a retelling of The Mahabharata from the viewpoint of Draupadi or Panchali as she’s referred to in the book. The book also focuses on Krishna and his relationship with Panchali. Krishna is the avatar of Vishnu and the book deals in a very subliminal way about the concept of godhood. The book deals with some feminist themes and also explores the fact that Panchali was a godling (born of fire) with some very human qualities.
Lastly I want to highlight the “Kate Daniels” series by Ilona Andrews; this series is a post-apocalyptic epic urban fantasy that has a superb focus on pan-continental mythologies (such as East European, Hindu, Middle Eastern, Indonesian, etc.). This series is a personal favorite for the authors’ characterization skills and humor quotient, but this series shines even brighter due to its spectacular world building and the authors’ propensity to meld different mythologies and use them cohesively.
Mythic and god-infused fiction is a particular love of mine. Some books, such as Catherynne M. Valente’s Myths of Origin which collects four of her novels, take existing myths and turns them on their heads with a fresh perspective. Other books, such as Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace, create new worlds complete with their own mythic system. I could list dozens of examples but these are two of my favorites for what they achieve. Valente takes established myths from the East and the West and creates an entirely new world around them. Kornher-Stace takes those established myths within that world and slowly breaks them down over the course of the novel.Taking an established myth and reinventing it or breaking it down entirely can be an invigorating read for me. I love spending time within these mythic and god-infused worlds exploring alongside the characters, getting to the root of a myth, seeing how it is woven into the fabric of a society. Valente and Kornher-Stace possess an expert level skill gliding through mythic and god-infused worlds and I will continue to seek out anything they create.
As well as having some of the coolest covers ever (by the wonderful Jon Sullivan) “The Age of Misrule” will always be one of my favorite fantasy trilogies. Fantastically written and highly underrated, in my humble opinion.
The story starts at the dawn of the new millennium Jack ‘Church’ Churchill and Ruth Gallagher witness the death of a man by the hands of a giant.
It seems similar events have taken place across the United Kingdom and all technology has stopped working as the magic begins to take over. A mysterious message claims that both Church and Ruth are the Brother and Sister of dragons. They are given the task of finding five other Brothers and Sisters to seek out four mystical items which will help defeat the Night Walkers and restore the balance.
As they progress they meet an old hippie named Thomas who also knows a little more as to what is going on, and saves them from a Fabulous Beast (dragon) which is very nice of him as well as some other memorable characters.
The series reminds me, in part, of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series but what is more important is that it focuses on Celtic/English folklore and mythology. Chadbourn wastes no time with introducing the fabulous elements of Gods and Monsters and each has a major part to play within the series.
“The Age of Misrule” connects Arthurian legend with that of the Tuatha De Dannan (deities of Ireland pre-Christian) and the Fae as well as other things that are connected to English and Celtic mythology e.g Stone Henge and other monolithic sites, mystical hounds, shape-shifters, and witches (whose use of a broomstick is not at all in the conventional sense. This ain’t no Quidditch). Mark Chadbourn brings Urban Fantasy to old-world Mythology in an epic way, and it just works so well.
Of course one of my favorite parts of the series is when our party of five travel to Cornwall, where the story focuses a lot on the Arthurian legends of the county, e.g The Lady of The Lake, Tintagel castle, Excalibur. Also, interestingly enough, Thomas recounts the story of Jesus and Joseph of Arimithea traveling from St. Michael’s Mount to Glastonbury.
There are two more trilogies that take place after “The Age Of Misrule” but I’m sorry to say that I have not read these, but that aside this trilogy will always be one of my favorites, and it is one series that I love to revisit as much as I can.
*readies bolt of thunder*
I could probably fill up the rest of my time here just trying to describe to you how many gods there are or what they can do or their history or—well, let’s cut to the chase and say that Erikson didn’t write a 10-book, 3-million-plus-words series and fill it with nothing.
But the sheer number of gods isn’t why I love this series—it’s that they’re not the only players. One of the main things I look for in fantasy series featuring the divine is how they interact with mortals and the world. It tickles me in all the right places that while the gods constantly scheming, their’s isn’t the only or even most important game around. When you combine gods wielding continent-destroying power with mortals who have no qualms about going toe-to-toe and usurping their place…well, I’m already sold as you might be able to tell.
Ultimately, what appeals most to me about gods in fiction is less about power fantasies and more about power struggles. Give me gods who lie and cheat and have ambition. Give me gods who respect mortals. Give me gods who take risks. Give me gods who fail. Give me gods who make me laugh on one page, and cry on the next. Praise be to Steven Erikson, for giving us characters who are goddamned interesting.
I was worried I’d have a hard time coming up with a favorite story for this Mind Meld. But when i started to think about it, there are a lot of myth and god-infused stories. The Harry Potter series is riddled with mythological creatures, Mary Stewart’s Merlin series tackles the legend of King Arthur and Merlin, and Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles has roots in Celtic mythology. Jessica Andersen’s Final Prophesy series even touches upon ancient Mayan mythology, which is really cool.
I’d have to say my favorite myth/god based books are Rick Riordan’s “Percy Jackson series.” These are fast paced books for younger readers (though adults can definitely enjoy them as well) that bring ancient Greek mythology to modern times as readers follow the adventures of a teenage son of Neptune and other “half-bloods” (half human, half god) as they try to save the world from cyclopean beasts and the wrath of the Olympians. These are great books to read together as a family, and I found my interest in the stories behind the books renewed. I went back to explore a lot of the ancient Greek myths that inspired Percy’s adventures after finishing the books.