Random (but not really)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Categorical Books: Fantasy

After mystery, my favorite category when I was young was fantasy. I re-read The Hobbit just about every year, and in college it was fantasy that sucked me back into reading after I’d all but given it up for the usual college pursuits.

However, I haven’t read much straight-up fantasy in the past decade. Partially because I haven’t been in the mood for it, and partially because most fantasy series tend to be multiple tomes that require re-reading every time a new tome appears on the scene. But there are some books that I will go back to occasionally, for the comfort they bring.


SwordspointEllen Kushner‘s Swordspoint doesn’t have any magic, it just exists in a world that isn’t–and never was–our own. This is one of my comfort reads. The book I reach for when I need to escape our current reality.

The falling snow made it hard for him to see. The fight hadn’t winded him, but he was hot and sweaty, and he could feel his heart pounding in his chest. He ignored it, making for Riverside, where no one was likely to follow him.

He could have stayed, if he’d wanted to. The swordfight had been very impressive, and the party guests and its outcome would be talked about for weeks. But if he stayed, the swordsman knew that he would be offered wine, and rich pastry, and asked boring questions about his technique, and difficult questions about who had arranged the fight. He ran on.

Under his cloak, his shirt was spattered with blood, and the Watch would want to know what he was doing up on the Hill at this hour. It was their right to know; but his profession forbade him to answer, so he dodged around corners and caught his breath in doorways until he’d left the splendors of the Hill behind, working his way down through the city.


Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld is one that you’ve probably had recommend to you multiple times. Your really should listen, because he was an amazing author.

Very senior librarians…once they have proved themselves worthy by performing some valiant act of librarianship, are accepted into a secret order and are taught the raw arts of survival beyond the Shelves We Know. The Librarian was highly skilled in all of them, but what he was attempting now wouldn’t just get him thrown out of the Order but probably out of life itself.



Steven Brust has to very distinct series both set in the same world. The Vlad Taltos series is noir in feel, with the main character who is an assassin and a smart ass. The Khaavren Romances are The Three Musketeers but with fantasy. The first is a page-turner while the second takes delight in word play.

The Serioli, who departed the area to avoid any of the unfortunate incidents that war can produce, left only the name for the place, which was “Ben,” meaning “ford” in their language. The Easterners called the place “Ben Ford,” or, in the Eastern tongue, “Ben gazlo.”

After ten years of fierce battle, the Imperial Army won a great victory on the spot, driving the Easterners well back into the mountains. The Dragonlords who had found the place, then, began calling it “Bengazlo Ford.” The Dragons, wishing to waste as little time on speech as possible, shortened this to Benglo Ford, or, in the tongue of the Dragon, which was still in use at the time, “Benglo ara.” Eventually, over the course of the millennia, the tongue of the Dragon fell out of use, and the North-western language gained preeminence, which rendered the location Bengloara Ford, which was eventually shortened to Bengloarafurd. The river crossing became the Bengloarafurd Ford, which name it held until after the Interregnum when the river was dredged and the Bengloarafurd Bridge was built.


Barry Hughart‘s Bridge of Birds is a fantastic historical tale with a main character is both wise man and trickster. And always a delight.

“In my humble village,” Master Li said sweetly, “we grow men so big that their upper lips lick the stars, while their lower lips nuzzle the earth.”

The thug thought about it. “And where are their bodies?”

“They are like you,” said Master Li. “All mouth.”


David Eddings‘s Belgariad was the series that returned me to reading fantasy. This is epic fantasy, with his two main series each having five books. The first series starts with the main chracter as a young boy, and we learn about the world as he does, discovering magic and amazement and horror and watch him grow and learn. It also has some of my all-time favorite characters.

“Always do the very best job you can,” he said on another occasion as he put a last few finishing touches with a file on the metal parts of a wagon tongue he was repairing.

“But that piece goes underneath,” Garion said. “No one will ever see it.”

“But I know it’s there,” Durnik said, still smoothing the metal. “If it isn’t done as well as I can do it, I’ll be ashamed every time I see this wagon go by-and I’ll see the wagon every day.”

‘I wish you’d stop using the word “steal.” Couldn’t we just say that we’re borrowing a boat?’

‘Did you plan to sail it back and return it when we’re finished with it?’

‘No. Not really.’

‘Then the proper word is “steal.” You’re the expert on ships and sailing; I’m the expert on theft.’

My TBR pile is excessive, yet looking for the perfect quote makes me want to re-read the entire series again.


Guy Gavriel Kay apparently spends years researching various cultures before he writes a fantasy loosely based upon that culture. He does not write quickly, but his books are things of beauty, to be savored rather than gulped down. I actually have to be in the mood to read slowly and thoroughly to read this books, but when I’m in that mood, there are escapes into amazing worlds.

She knows exactly what she wants to say in this letter, how many characters, how much ink she needs. You always grind a little more than you need, she has been taught (by her father). If you are forced to grind again, in order to finish, the texture at the end of your writing will be different from the beginning, a flaw.

She sets the ink stick down. Lifts the brush in her right hand. Dips it in the ink. She is using the rabbit’s-hair brush for this letter: it makes the most precise characters. Sheep’s hair is more bold, but though she needs the letter to seem confident of its virtue, it is still a plea.

She sits as she must sit. She adopts the Pillowed-Wrist Position, left hand under right wrist, supporting it. Her characters are to be small, exact, not large and assertive (for which she’d have used Raised-Wrist Position). The letter will be in formal hand. Of course it will.

A writer’s brush is a warrior’s bow, the letters it shapes are arrows that must hit the mark on the page. The calligrapher is an archer, or a general on a battlefield. Someone wrote that long ago. She feels that way this morning. She is at war.


Patricia C. Wrede writes mostly YA, which is possibly why I’ve been good with it–not many tomes here. Frontier Magic is probably one of my favorite series written in the past er…. 15 years. (Yikes.) It’s the story of a Eff, whose twin is a seventh son of a seventh son. But Eff is a thirteenth child, so many unkind family members have told her she is bad luck.

It seemed wrong to me that all the doctors and magicians should put so much work into trying to keep me alive, when if they’d known I was a thirteenth child and bound to turn evil in a few years, they wouldn’t have lifted a finger.

But it’s the world building as much as Eff’s story that is the draw here. It’s a world with magic, where the US hasn’t been conquered past the Mississippi because of the wild and dangerous magical creatures there.

Also, there is lots of science.

“Gathering base data is just as important as making entirely new observations. More important, sometimes; you can’t tell whether something’s changed if you don’t know what it was like to begin with.”

She also wrote Kate & Cecelia with Carol Stevermer which is a epistolary fantasy and just plain delightful.


And speaking of science, Marie Brennan‘s A Natural History of Dragons is the scientific fantasy I never knew I needed, and once I discovered it I couldn’t get enough.

Crawling in a dress, for those gentlemen who have never had occasion to try it, is an exercise in frustration, all but guaranteed to produce feelings of homicidal annoyance in the crawler.

It is so real and matter of fact about the things that so much of fantasy glosses over, and that just makes it all the more delightful.

I must warn you that this inconvenient fact of our sex is one of the most vexatious aspects of being a lady adventurer. Unless you contrive to suppress your courses through pregnancy— which, of course, imposes its own limitations— or through strenuous exercise and privation, you will have to handle this necessity in many circumstances that are far from ideal. Including some, I fear, where the smell of fresh blood is a positive danger.


Mackenzi Lee is another YA writer and is just barely fantasy in the first book, although the second book most definitely has fantastic creatures. I initially had a hard time liking the main character of the first book, because he comes across as irresponsible, but you quickly discover that his drinks to escape and for all he is a wealthy lord and heir, his life is not and has not been easy.

I want to run away right then but there’s just Percy in the cabin and water on either side, and the person I most want to run away from is me.

I am better than the worst things I’ve done.


Garth Nix is yet another YA fantasy series, about a young woman who must take over her inherited position of necromancer who takes care of the restless dead. This is another girl centered fantasy (my favorite) where Sabriel uses her wits and her skills to resolve the issues. I’ve given this book to a LOT of small people in my life.


And now for something completely different: Thieves’ World edited by Lynn Abbey and Robert Asprin is pretty much the opposite of everything else in this post. It’s dark and ugly and horrible things happen and almost none of the characters are likable. Yet I will be sucked in and re-read the whole thing and regret nothing.

It’s written by a variety of authors, so the books can be uneven, and every character seemingly competes to be more underhanded and cruel. But it’s a heck of a ride.

Also, it has some amazing passages. Such as this one written from the point of view of a dog.

For a moment she couldn’t see where the tall one was. Then the horses separated, and Tyr whimpered and sniffed the air. She caught the tall one’s scent. But to her horror it did something she had never smelled it do before: it cooled. It thinned, and vanished, and turned to meat.

No matter how many times I read this series, that passage is always a blow to the chest.


I don’t read very much straight-up fantasy anymore, but if it’s good I can read just a single book I’ll consider it.

Categorical Books

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