One of my friends requesting book recommendations. Now, since I could give a very long list of book recommendations, I asked what genres, and she said urban fantasy and space opera. Here, then, are my recommendations if you want some excellent urban fantasy or space opera.
What I mean by space opera is if you took a really good action/adventure movie, and the setting happened to be space. Think of the novel equivalent of Star Wars or Indiana Jones in space.
Trading in Danger (the first book in Vatta's War) - Elizabeth Moon - Ky Vatta is kicked out of the space military, starts trying to be a space merchant, has adventures, and also happen to be a woman. Some of the best space opera I've read. The Serrano Legacy series is also quite good.
The Human Division - John Scalzi - More excellent space opera, but this time centered around diplomats and told in a series of linked short stories, some serious, some amusing.
I am loosely defining urban fantasy as fantasy that happens in a modern, urban setting.
Little (Grrl) Lost - Charles DeLint - DeLint somehow manages to pull together all kinds of disparate elements and mythologies and make it work. Also, all of his novels have a wonderfully rich and complex backstory that is only hinted at.
Spiral Hunt - Margaret Ronald - I was blown away when I read this trilogy, and wish she'd written more. The author has very clear ideas about what her fantasy is (instead of throwing everything in), and it is Celtic with a decent dose of literary theory. I was also pleased to find that instead of a stock love triangle, it is about people trying to figure things out. The protagonist is a woman who freelances on the side as a private detective.
Discount Armageddon - Seanin McGuire - (the first Incryptid novel) This takes place in New York and presumes that all the urban legends of things like chupacabras and Bigfoot and such are true, and that they are living normal lives (except for that pesky secret order that tries to kill them). It also features the Aeslin mice, a group of intelligent mice that have their own rituals and wear squirrel skulls and say things like "Hail the taking out of the trash!" and are completely adorable. (Small warning that the author works as a waitress in a strip club, if that would bother you.)
(Joel also suggested Dresden, but I've heard such problematic things about it (from Charis and Sharon, who have excellent taste), and I've never been able to get into it myself, that I have trouble recommending it, and probably won't in the future.)
Here are the "modern" books that I picked as a sampler of science fiction and fantasy. I thought of it as one of those cheese plates or chocolate boxes. It has a little of everything, and I tried to hit all the big notes, even those that aren't to my taste (some people like coconut or nuts, and even though Neil Gaiman isn't to my taste, he is still one of the big tastes in fantasy). I wasn't trying to be exhaustive (this has a startling lack of Patricia Wrede, for instance). I thought I'd post this here, in the hopes that someone might find or book, or that you, dear reader, could point out any glaring oversights.
Since this was a sampler, I tried to pick each of a sort of book.
I, Robot - Issaac Asimov - This is a clever set of stories that depend on the three laws that Asimov created to define the behavior of robots. Much of modern science fiction builds or interacts with Asimov's conception of robots.
Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury - It's hard to know where to start with Bradbury. I think his work is pretty consistent, though, so if you like one, you're likely to like most. I've suggested Fahrenheit 451 because it is one of the best known, and because I enjoyed it the last time I read it.
A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula LeGuin - LeGuin is one of the big names in science fiction, and quite deservedly. This is about names and how they interact with the thing that is named, and is set on various islands.
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'Engle - Many of my friends like this book, and although it has never quite clicked for me, I still think it worth reading, for Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which.
The Abhorsen Trilogy (beginning with Sabriel) - Garth Nix - I reread these quite often. Garth Nix does everything well: characters, description, plot, action, and worldbuilding. Although this trilogy isn't about vampires, it pairs well with Dracula. Both are about the fight of light and law against dark and death.
Alphabet of Thorn - Patricia McKillip - I had a hard time choosing which book of McKillip to suggest, because I like so much of her work. She writes lovely fantasy that draws heavily from fairy tale imagery.
Coraline - Neil Gaiman - I'm not sure the best place to start with Gaiman. So many of my friends adore him that I thought I should include Coraline. Quirky and a bit dark. It is also a wonderful stop-motion film. (Or, you might prefer to try the BBC radio play of Neverwhere, which I have and is wonderful.)
Trading in Danger (the first book in the Vatta's War series) - Elizabeth Moon - If you want to try space opera, start here. Action, adventure, space pirates, and saving the galaxy.
The Human Division - John Scalzi - more excellent space opera, but this time centered around diplomats and told in a series of linked short stories.
Howl’s Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones - A moving castle, an eldest daughter who sets out to seek her fortune, transformations, and a clever use of a John Donne poem.
Tam Lin - Pamela Dean - a novel length re-telling of Tam Lin in a modern-ish college setting.
Beauty - Robin McKinley - a novel length re-telling of Beauty and the Beast in a fantasy setting.
Restoration of Faith (short story available here) - Jim Butcher - Joel knows about Dresden, and as I've yet to read the series, I included his suggestion. Try Dresden if you want occasionally humorous modern fantasy centered around a private detective. From what I've heard, the series improves quite a bit after the first couple of books.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell - Suzanah Clarke - Victorian England, the Napoleonic Wars, the return of magic, and the Raven King. Not to mention wonderful footnotes that fly off on tangents to tell stories of their own.
the Harry Potter series - J.K. Rowling - The best is Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but it is the fifth book and you really have to start at the beginning and read the entire series. Rowling writes characters very well, and is concerned with the disenfranchised.
Here included with Amazon links.
For the most part, these are books that are big in the science fiction and fantasy genre, but also worth reading in their own right. (For instance, I have left Jules Verne off the list because, while he is influential, I think he is also generally dull.)
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens - I'm not sure if this counts, but it has ghosts, and is one of Dicken's better works, so I've put it on the list.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson - Like many books on the list, this comes up quite a lot in later books. The ideas are referenced, the characters are referenced, and it begins a discussion.
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley - This is the quintessential "science creates a monster" novel.
Dracula - Bram Stoker - Vampire stories were around before Dracula, but this is really The Vampire Novel. Everything that follows that has to due with vampires (from Buffy to Twilight) interacts with Dracula in some way. Plus, it's just brilliant. A bit of a slow start, but atmospheric, creepy, and featuring amazing characters like Mina and Van Helsing.
The Princess and the Goblin - George MacDonald - This is a lovely book that draws from fairy tales written by a wise Scottish preacher. I love all of George MacDonald's fantasy, but this is really the best place to start.
The Charwoman’s Shadow or The King of Elfland’s Daughter - Lord Dunsany - Lord Dunsany is a classic in the fantasy genre, and for very good cause. His use of language is brilliant (he is fond of words like "gloaming") and his imagery is beautiful.
The Invisible Man - H.G. Wells - Not only is H.G. Wells one of the most famous early writers of science fiction, he remains quite readable, because he is interested in using futuristic science to explore what it means to be human. You can start with just about any of his novels. I picked The Invisible Man because I liked it.
The Sword in the Stone - T.H. White - I am a huge fan of King Arthur, and T.H. White presents Arthur in a more approachable way. It includes Robin Hood, wyvverns, griffins, Merlin, and the Fair Folk, and one of the most amusing jousts I've read.
The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S. Lewis - Anything by the Inklings deserves to be on this list. Narnia is often underestimated, but Lewis manages to do something with Narnia that is almost unique when he created Aslan. I think everyone should start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien - Wonderfully written, with what remains some of the best, most thorough worldbuilding in fantasy, Tolkien constructed a story and world that is infused with Christian ideas. He also began a trend of epic fantasy that double as bricks or doorstops.
( in which I explain why I didn't like the book )
( the rest of the review, with spoilers, because they can't be avoided )
So, it seems that all my friends list has been talking about A Countess Below Stairs, by Eva Ibbotsen, and so six weeks or so ago I saw it at the library, and having got it, read it. The short version is that it wasn't my cup of tea.
( thoughts on the book, involving some spoilers )
So, to start with Passage. (there will be spoilers for this book, but nothing related to the plot, only the main idea of the book) This is one of Willis' more serious books, and this is one of the reasons that I disliked it, as it is her lighter, more humorous work that I've enjoyed. Further, it draws a sharp distinction between the physical and spiritual, and it is this distinction that the book depends on for the primary conflict. It is about near death experiences, and there are two ways of thinking about such things in the book. First, there are the crazy spiritualists who claim that all near death experiences are deeply spiritual in nature, cannot be replicated by science because they aren't physical, and the spiritualists twist the evidence in order to achieve the results they want. Second, there are the scientists, who say that all near death experiences are only physical, can be replicated by science (a new drug that acts on the brain in the same way), and as such can be studied like all physical phenomenon, and therefore can't have any spiritual value. I don't like Passages because it is based on a false distinction. Experiences need not be merely physical or only spiritual, but can be both. Someone may have a spiritual experience which also has physical explanations. Because humans are amphibious (to borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis), being both body and spirit, it is only logical that many of our experiences would be both physical and spiritual. Loving someone no doubt means that a certain bit of your brain lights up, and you have certain chemicals more present in your body when you think of them, and you have certain involuntary reactions when you hear their name, but it does not mean that that is all there is to loving someone. Similarly, near death experiences may have certain physical characteristics, may be imitated through the use of a drug, but that is insufficient to conclude that near death experiences aren't spiritual as well. That was my primary complaint of the book; it did not allow for any nuances between the physical and spiritual explanations of an experience.
On the other hand, I found To Say Nothing of the Dog quite delightful. It is rather like The Importance of Being Earnest, only with time travel, at least in tone. It has that light, crazy, tone of The Importance of Being Earnest, and is set mostly in Victorian England. There is adventure, romance, boating along the Thames, references to Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers (particularly Gaudy Night), Jeeves, and all sorts of clever dialogue. You should read it.
Also, where was all the violence that Nim talked about? Maybe I'm just too used to Joss Whedon, but while there was some fighting, I didn't find any of it particularly violent. Or creepy.
( more specific discussion, and major spoilers )
( in which I ramble on, and there are spoilers )
Soulless is based on the premise that souls exist, and that they are a substance in some sense of the word, and that a person may have more or less of a soul. So, some people survive being turned into vampires (for instance) because they have more soul. This seems dubious, but what I think really hurts the novel is that Ms. Carriger does not appear to have a clear idea of what a soul is within the context of the novel (not merely that the characters are unsure, but there seems to be no clear working definition at all). Alexia has no soul, but still thinks, feels, and has some degree of morals. She seems to lack some degree of creativity; her clothing choice is technically perfect but lacks soul. She has nifty abilities to cancel out supernatural powers, which includes vampires and werewolves. This doesn't make sense to me, because the lack of something does not cancel out the presence of something (to oversimplify, an anti-electron cancels out an electron, not a lack of an electron).
In the interview at the end, Ms. Carriger talks about how she thought of Victorian Imperialist Britain, and thought that the fashions must have been dictated by the vampires, and the military might a result of the werewolves, if such existed. I would have liked to have read that novel; Souless only has a few hints of it. Naomi Novik does this sort of thought experiment much better in His Majesty's Dragon (which also has a modern feel) or Susannah Clarke in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (which has a delightful, almost Victorian feel).
I'm always looking out for fairy tale retellings. But, I must admit that I'm generally underwhelmed. In fact, the last fairy tale retelling that I liked that wasn't a McKinley was . . . well, I can't actually think of any. So I started Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow with no great expectations. It's a YARG retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, with perhaps a bit more Beauty and the Beast than is usual. I liked the first bit. It was decently written, engaging, and the bit about the magical white reindeer was just about perfect. But then it just didn't really go anywhere. There are fauns, gargoyles, and all sorts of strange creatures that don't seem to belong. The portrayal of the winds didn't seem to gain anything to me. I've never found it that awkward that the girl sleeps in a bed with a strange man, because in the fairy tale it isn't awkward, it's just how things are (and it echoes Cupid and Psyche in interesting ways). But this novel made it all extremely awkward, although nothing actually happens. In short, the novel gains very little (the white reindeer that grants wishes), and loses much that is enchanting from the original tale. It never sinks to the level of abysmal, but it never really realizes it's potential. This is, I think, the reason I feel compelled to write fairy tale retellings; nobody is telling them the way I think they ought.
The utopia presented in Atlas Shrugged is composed entirely of people who are geniuses, and supremely good at what they do. But there is no place for the ordinary person who runs the grocery store, and has no higher aspiration in life. Oh, certainly, the geniuses of her books may run a restaurant or do manual labor, but it is in revolt against the world because the world will not accept them. They have grand dreams and grand ideas of changing the world, and there really seems to be no place for the person who has no higher ambition than to check street plans or own a restaurant. Ordinary people let the world dissolve into anarchy, through a desire for socialism instead of capitalism. I do not think that socialism is a good idea; I don't think it works. I agree that people are entitled to their labor, as Locke argues. But that is a rabbit trail. To return to what I was saying, there seems to be no virtue in the common, ordinary person. It is the opposite of Chesterton's The Flying Inn, where the great evil is thwarted by the common, ordinary people of Britain who finally realize what is happening. One of the leaders is the military leader, but the other is the owner of an inn who has no particular ambition, only a desire to keep his inn. At the heart of Chesterton's England is the ordinary person, and that is what the revolution is founded on.
I disliked The Fountainhead for two reasons. First, it has such a strange model of an ideal relationship, founded on desire and passion, and selfishness. Each is with the other in order to fulfill their own desire, and seeks their own passion, rather than the self-sacrificing love of a good relationship. Further, the woman wants to be dominated and subjected. She takes no pleasure from kindness, but has a strange, masochistic pleasure in physical and mental pain of domination. It is, to be blunt, an abusive relationship. Sayers addresses this in one of her Peter Whimsey novels (I think it is Strong Poison, but I don't have the books in front of me). One of the female characters is a strong feminist, and is looking for someone who will dominate in a relationship. But Whimsey tells her that she is confused, and the man that she is looking for will respect her intelligence and look up to her as being superior in that way. Sayers gives this character the opportunity for a relationship founded on respect and love.
Second, I disliked The Fountainhead because there is no place for the pointless, small, happy joys and pleasures. Everyone acts in their self interest, for great passions or pleasures. I cannot see anyone dancing in the rain for no particular reason. All her heros act with a purpose, and it always for their own self interest. Everything should have a reason and a purpose. There is no place for people who wander aimlessly, or who jump in the fountain just because, not even because they feel like it. Happiness must always have a reason, be it mental, emotional, or physical (although I'm not sure her characters are ever happy, though they may pursue and experience pleasure and passions). Her characters are happy when they build a house and do it well, or they have pleasure in physical labor, both of which are pleasures, but they are never happy just because. Emotions are funny things. Feeling happy, or depressed, or lighthearted or any other emotion may not have a logical cause. I have been completely happy one day for no reason, for no discernable cause. Things that have no reason to make me feel happy or sad have affected me strongly. I have skipped down the street for no reason at all, and I have cried without knowing why. I think emotions are messy, irrational, fabulous things. I think it is good to feel, without necessarily having a cause for feeling.
Finally, I disagree with Ann Rand completely on the "virtue of selfishness". I don't think selfishness is a virtue at all, but a vice. I admire philanthropists, and people who do things for other people not because they are in some way inadequate, nor because they desire to feel approval, and often not even because it gives them pleasure, but because they love people. Saint Francis, trading his battered cloak to a beggar for a worse one, makes no sense in this philosophy. In fact, Saint Francis would be a great fool. There is no place for philanthropy, or charity. I do not think a world like that is worth living in.
The long version
( Here There Be Spoilers )
I was reading a serialized novel, and my mind started to wander. This is exactly what you don't want to happen if you are an author. Once the reader starts to wander, to ask questions about the reality of the story, you've already lost. I shall then take a close look at the passage in question, and see what can be gained from reading it.
From Procyx (in the April 2003 issue of Deep Magic):
The parkways were themselves sweeping gardens. The fragrances of rich, floral perfumes drifted and flowed among the trees. They were exquisite, never competing - always complimentary. One fragrance would seem to drift by and end, and there would be an interval of olfactory silence before another scent might swell upon the air.
That's it, in its entirety. Now, before I begin to dissect it, let me show you just what was wrong. Compare the following paragraph, which adds on my thoughts.
The parkways were themselves sweeping gardens. The fragrances of rich, floral perfumes drifted and flowed among the trees. They (the fragrances, not the trees) were exquisite, never competing - always complimentary (this word never failed to remind him of art class in high school). One fragrance would seem to drift by and end, and there would be an interval of olfactory silence (he winced, even as he thought it, because it really was mixing metaphors) before another scent might swell upon the air. Reeber sneezed twice, in quick succession, and felt in his pockets for a kleenex. He never would have thought that he would be allergic to the flowers of that earthly utopia. At least, he assumed they were flowers, as the trees weren't blooming, but he couldn't actually see them. He snufffled. His eyes were already beginning to water.
So what happened? Obviously, by the end of the description I'm bored stiff, and have wandered off on a mental tangent. The first sentence isn't bad. It isn't very interesting, but it gives necessary information. The second sentence begins to give interesting images. We have perfume, but no flowers for the perfume to come from. In other words, the image is very nebulous at this point. Now, the next sentence get's into a bit of trouble. The last noun was "trees", but "they" refers to "the fragrances". This bit of confusion drew me out of the story for a moment, until I understood what the author was saying. Now I'm paying more attention to the words, which is bad. I don't just follow the flow of the story. The author must, at this point, work to regain my attention.
The next sentence, about the drifting fragrances, is bad. It gives no concrete images or scents. We don't see any flowers, or pollen on the air, or know what it smells like. Do the scents come from the trees? from herbs? from flowers? Are they sweet or pungent? Is it more like cinnamon or roses? What associations does the narrator have with the scents? I can't picture the garden, I can't smell the garden. I see someone standing in the middle of trees (and I don't even know whether they are really ordered, like a park, or more unkempt, like a wood), smelling various things.
Now, the description "olfactory silence" seems particularly ill timed. It mixes senses. There may not be a word for "not smelling anything in particular at the moment", but that is no excuse. But this might have been excused, if it was clear what sort of silence it was. There are all sorts of silence: the quiet after everyone has gone to bed, the tense silence while a class is taking an important test, the happy silence when everyone in the lab is working on a project that is going decently, the numbing sensation when a large, persistent noise like a drill has suddenly stopped, or the delicious silence on the way back from a party when the people in the back seat of the car have stopped talking. But we don't know which of these silences it is like. Further, it is confusing, because just a few sentences ago, the author was talking about mingling the fragrances, and here it is quite plain that they don't mix. What's a reader to do?
Finally, this is the sort of story that doesn't seem particularly realistic. I love gardens, especially the sweet, citrus smell of my roses on a muggy evening. But they make me sneeze. Most flowers do, in fact. Or they make my nose run. In fact, lot's of scents, particularly unexpected, strong scents, make me sneeze.
I should close by saying that this is definitely a problem passage. The author wrote some pretty decent stuff (otherwise I should never have made it this far). But any scene that confuses or bores the reader is bad. Once the reader stops to pay attention to phrases like "olfactory silence," you've lost them. Now, it may be possible to gain their interest again (or they may feel like slogging through the rest of the book because they've already read most of it), but it is still poor writing, and you risk the reader putting down the book and never picking it up again.