We’ve all got some gems that we’ve discovered over the years that no one else seems to know about. Here are some of mine. Science Fiction and Fantasy (and “other”) which may be more or less obscure, but which are much better than the usual Tolkien/Star Wars emulators out there. Will hopefully return to some of these in more detail eventually, but for now I hope you can find some of these.
The Winter of the World trilogy, by Michael Scott Rohan. Anvil of Ice, Forge in the Forest, and The Hammer of the Sun. Out of print for years in the US, sadly, but some of my favorites since I was a kid. Very “Tolkien” in so far as it is epic, medieval fantasy which borrows heavily (but intelligently) from Norse and Finnish mythology and folklore. Otherwise, however, it is very original, from its prehistoric setting to its system of magic, which is closely tied to craftsmanship. The first book is my favorite–sort of a coming of age story, rags to riches, that sort of thing–but they are all very enjoyable. Hard to find, but worth it. Watch out though– I tend to hoard copies when I find them, considering how hard to find they are.
Stone and Flute by Hans Bemman. Oh gosh, I read this so long ago. Nearly a decade–but it stands out as a unique and fascinating work. It’s long, and not exactly a thrilling page turner, but I like that (we have too many cookie cutter “thrillers” out there). Follows an initially unpromising boy from his youth to old age, as he travels across the entire world of the book and experiences all sorts of transformations, both morally and literally. If you can handle a long, unusual slog like Mervyn Peake’s Gorhmengast series, than you might enjoy this less creepy/gothic oddity.
Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin. OK, a bit better known and mainstream than the two above, but certainly still “peripheral” within the science fiction/fantasy ghetto. I read this the same time I read Stone and Flute, so the two feel linked to me. So long ago that it is fuzzy in my memory, but this isn’t a review, just a nod. You might call this “Magical Realism”, but Helprin apparently did not like that style–felt like it was too exhibitionist and forced. The book explore New York city, or the idea of the City. Feels a bit akin to the “New Weird” of the 90s and 2000s. In fact, if I were to teach a course on the City in literature, I would include this book alongside China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which is also “weird”, though a lot more pessimistic as well. I’ve heard some people complain that Helprin’s prose is overwrought. Personally, I enjoyed it. Yes, prose can be overdone, but I don’t need every novel I read trying to outdo Hemingway for terseness (I get plenty of that in the sagas, in any case). Will hopefully get a chance to read this again soon. Hm, maybe I can fit it in to my R&C course next semester…
The Book of the Dun Cow, by Walter Wangerin Jr. Animal Farm, but with Norse mythology mixed in and a fairly heavy Christian “point”, if not allegory. This was read to us in class when I was in 4th grade. Now that I’ve reread it as an adult, I’m a bit surprised they did that in a public school–I think it is nearly as blatantly Christian as Lewis’ Narnia. I’m a bit suspicious of it ideologically after my last read. I’m all for intelligent Christian fiction, but I felt like there were some warning signs when I went through this time (re: gender, the idealization of rural, agricultural life as foundational to the world, etc), but I will have to reread it before deciding what I really think about that. Still, it is one of my favorites and rereading it did not diminish my enjoyment. As when I first heard it, it feels very different from anything else out there. Different, but good.
Neveryon, by Samuel DeLany. This is a series of books which generally seem to be “fantasy” (imaginary civilization, even if not prominently magical), but when deconstruct the genre very well, from the usual “whiteness” of fantasy worlds, to the patriarchal assumptions of those worlds. I’ve been picking my way through the first book at times, but the last chapter was pretty intense–basically trying to reproduce the deconstruction of language for the reader and in the context of a matriarchal tribal culture. The introduction to the book is written by a fictional professor who is aware of his own fictionality. I suppose that’s the best indicator I can give of how different this book is. I love it. Just wish I had more time to work through it!
Nova, by Samuel DeLany. Yes, another one by DeLany. I mentioned his Babel-17 in my last post, but I wanted to make sure I mentioned Nova, since it is one of the more accessible (but still incredibly interesting) books of this often difficult author. Space Opera, with a nod to Moby Dick (charismatic captain running after a supernova, in this case), but it is also a precursor to the idea of “plugging in” to a machine that you get in Cyberpunk, and integrates the Tarot into the story line in a very interesting way–and similar to the way Babel-17 and Empire Star can serve as meditations on what it is to be a poet, this book is a meditation on what it is to be a novelist. This is definitely my favorite by DeLany. It is short, so it is not too big a commitment to try out, in case you are hesitant.
The Dragons of Babel, by Michael Swanwick. Like Delany, not sure I can really call this too obscure, but hey, you’re less likely to have read this than, say some Shannara thingy by Brooks. I would call this Mythpunk–grabbing bits of mythology and folklore from all over the world and playing with it openly–think a darker version of Narnia’s hodge-podge of mythologies, rather than a coherent “new” world like Middle Earth. Similar to Stone and Flute, this book follows the protagonist through all sorts of transformations, again, both literal and moral. You can find everything in here from Norse to Babylonian myth– but the story nevertheless stays very focused on the main character and his travels through this world. The plot has more to do with the character development of this young fey (with half human blood) than with accomplishing a specific goal, so it can feel a little aimless at times–but you know, that’s the case with a few of these favorites of mine. Great book in any case. Swanwick is one of my new favorites.
The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren. Well, I have to put something Swedish on here. We all know Lindgren’s character Pippi Longstocking, but she has quite a few other books out there too. Brothers Lionheart is a very touching fantasy for children which deals with death. Some might find the way she does this troubling–but you will have to read all the way to the end to see what I mean. No spoilers from me. The fantasy world is fairly standard, and maybe even a bit simplistic, which could support the idea that the whole fantasy of most of the book is a dying dream–but I think you can take it either way.
Shivering World, by Kathy Tyers. I’ll finish with this for now, a book which I’ve mentioned several times in my posts. It is easier to find the more recent rewrite for the Christian market, but the original was nominated for the Nebula award. Space Opera, but with a good hard-science fiction edge. A relatively early work dealing with gene engineering and imagining the wake that could leave in society if it were practiced on humans. A fascinating meditation on the Otherness of parents and their offspring. And that’s all I have time for.