Random (but not really)

Friday, October 27, 2017

Fantasy, Straight Up

When I was younger, my two primary reading genres were mysteries and fantasy, almost all of which was epic fantasy. The problem for me was that genre was overtaken giant tomes that are parts of multi-book series that never seemed to be concluded, no matter what the authors might promise. (It’s a trilogy! No, sorry, five books. No, wrong again. Perhaps it’ll end at eight.) That, combined with the fact that these books often ended in cliffhangers, and story arcs that never seem be to resolved, I just got fed up and switched to books with single book story arcs—books that weren’t five inches thick.

That doesn’t mean I abandoned straight-up fantasy. There are, after all, authors that can tell a story in a single book, or even two books.  Or series that are loosely related, but don’t require going back and reading the previous books to enjoy the newest. That is mostly what this list is. I do have some epic fantasy—the books I love and turn to for comfort. I’ve actually left one of those books, The Hobbit, off this list, because everyone knows The Hobbit. What I want is for you to read books that are less well-known, but just as marvelous.

Best of Index


The Phoenix Guards (1991) Steven Brust (The Khaavren Romances)

I went back and forth on which Steven Brust book or series to choose, because they are all wonderful. But The Phoenix Guards is so delightful and over-the-top I had to go with it.

I’ve seen it described as the best English translation of The Three Musketeers, and although that’s somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s also a perfect description of what you’ll get.

Khaavren is a young man heading to the capitol to make his fortune in the guards. Along the way he meets up with three strangers, all of which end up becoming his friends and fellow guard members.

Let me be clear, you need to be in the mood for these books. They are completely over the top, and if you’re just wanting a quick, fun romp, then you’ll want Jhereg (1983), which is fantasy noir at its best. In fact, you might be surprised to see that both series were written by the same author, because they are so completely different.

Take one of my favorite passages.

Tazendra, who had been watching the one called Uttrik as he removed his doublet, drew his sword, and began taking practice thrusts with it, said, “Good Khaavren.”


“I do not think this gentleman will give you much sport.”

“You think not?”

“Well, you perceive how, in practicing, he strikes only at the air.”

“That is not unusual, when preparing for a contest.”

“No, and yet he seems to miss with every third stroke.”

It’s hilarious and over-the-top and utterly delightful. But unless I’m in the mood for it, an entire book of that can get be a bit much. So be forewarned before deciding to start this book.

There are three books in this series, and three books in the following series about Khaavren’s son. Then, set in the same land with overlapping characters is the Vlad Taltos series, starting with  Jhereg which is noir crime fiction, but in a fantasy world. There are also several stand-alone novels which have nothing to do with these series or each other. Steven Brust is a man of great imagination.


Pawn of the Prophecy (1982) David Eddings (The Belgariad)

When I started college, I got out of the habit of reading, what with studying and partying and working and all the other things a college student does. But then at a Christmas gift exchange someone gave me their copies of The Belgariad, and suddenly I started making time for reading again.

This is epic fantasy. It’s the story of a young boy, Garion, who thinks he’s nothing more than a farm boy, but then events teach him otherwise.

And he meets some marvelous people.

“…I am from Boktor in Drasnia. I am a juggler and an acrobat.”

“And also a thief and a spy,” Barak rumbled good-naturedly.

“We all have our faults,” Silk admitted blandly…

And he has adventures, some of which are marvelous, and some of which are terrible.

The revenge he had wanted so desperately for the past several months was dreadfully complete, but the taste of it was bitter, bitter.

Then his knees buckled and he sank to the earth and wept like a broken-hearted child.

But mostly it’s just a lovely immersive story that takes me far away.

The Belgariad consists of five books, and the following series, the Mallorean, consists of five books. There are also two stand-alone books, Belgarath and Polgara, that tell the histories of those characters.


lord-john-private-matterLord John and the Private Matter (2003) Diana Gabaldon (Lord John)

Everyone knows Diana Gabaldon for her Outlander series. Thing is, I dislike time travel stories even more than I dislike dystopias. So Outlander is Right Out. But several years ago I came across a Lord John story, and very much enjoyed it, so when I discovered she’d written several Lord John stories and a couple of novels, I read more.

Lord John is actually a character from Outlander, so this is set in the same world and the same time, however, there is absolutely no fantasy in these stories, thought there is a good dash of mystery thrown in. But mostly these are historical tales about an officer in the British Army

An officer who happens to be gay, at a time when sodomy was a serious crime in England, and even more serious in the Army.

An army that is completely foreign to the modern reader.
Commissions were normally purchased, and many officers had never seen a soldier nor held a weapon prior to taking up their office.

The first story finds Lord John concerned when he notices that the man his cousin is to marry has the pox. Unfortunately, because of his inclinations, he fears that calling out the man would lead to questions as to why he was looking, so he says nothing but is determined to end the betrothal without ruining his cousin.

There is so much I love about these books, starting with the well-researched bits about gay society in historical London.

But what I like best is Lord John, who is, above all, a good and honorable man.

(L)ove that sacrificed honor was less honest than simple lust, and degraded those who professed to glory in it.

“While there is anyone alive with a claim upon my protection, my life is not my own.”

And I also love the delightful bits that appear throughout the stories.

“A witch?” Grey repeated, and felt an odd frission run down his back, as though someone had touched his nape with a cold finger. “What did this witch look like?”

The child stared back at him, uncomprehending.

“Like a witch,” he said.

“A succubus is a she-demon,” the old lady said, precisely. ”It comes to men in dreams, and has congress with them, in order to extract from them their seed.”

The princess’s eyes went perfectly round. She hadn’t known, Grey observed.

“Why?” she asked. “What does she do with it?”

For obvious reasons, these stories aren’t for everyone, but I love them, and often turn to them when I need some comfort reading.

There are five Lord John books, one of which is a collection of three novellas, and one of which is a short(ish) story.


The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox (1984) Barry Hughart

I bought a beautiful reprint of this book—and then realized it was huge and I’d never actually sit down with the giant time and read, so I was delighted when I found the ebook on sale.

The complication consists of three books: Bridge of Birds (1984), The Story of the Stone (1988), Eight Skilled Gentlemen (1991).

The subtitle of the first book, is a story of China that Never Was, and that is a perfect description for what you get.

A strange malady has struck the children of the village of Ku-fu. As the silkworms the village depends upon for survival are discovered dead, the children of the village fall into a strange coma and cannot be awakened. Number Ten Ox (Yu Lu), an orphan, sets out to find someone who can cure the children. This places him on the path of adventure where he meets master Li Kao.

Very much the trickster, and utterly delightful.

‘Take a large bowl,’ I said. ‘Fill it with equal measures of fact, fantasy, history, mythology, science, superstition, logic, and lunacy. Darken the mixture with bitter tears, brighten it with howls of laughter, toss in three thousand years of civilization, bellow kan pei— which means “dry cup”— and drink to the dregs.’ Procopius stared at me. ‘And I will be wise?’ he asked. ‘Better,’ I said. ‘You will be Chinese.’”

I also love the bits of folklore that are strewn throughout the story.

Old P’i-pao-ku, “Leatherbag Bone,” was Mrs. Wu’s grandmother, and she was waiting at the confectioner’s to get hard sugar decorations of the five poisonous insects (centipede, scorpion, lizard, toad, snake) to spread over the top of her wu tu po po cake, which she would purposely make as inedible as possible without being actually deadly. Every family member eats a slice on the fifth day of the fifth moon, and sickness demons stare at people capable of eating stuff like that and go elsewhere.

It’s a delightful story, and a wonderful escape.


SwordspointSwordspoint (1987) Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint is another book that I have read more times than I can count. When I’m feeling particularly low, this always makes me feel better.

It is not truly a fantasy, for there is nothing magical about it at all, but it doesn’t occur in any historical place that existed, rather a time and place Ellen Kushner created.

And it is utterly marvelous. Take the opening.

The blood lies on the snow of a formal winter garden, now trampled and muddy. A man lies dead, the snow filling in the hollows of his eyes, while another man is twisted up, grunting, sweating frog-ponds on the frozen earth, waiting for someone to come and help him. The hero of this little tableau has just vaulted the garden wall and is running like mad into the darkness while the darkness lasts.

It is the story of Richard the swordsman and Alec the student. Alec is an extremely difficult character, and there are many many times one wonders why Richard puts up with him. But he does, and despite the oddness, it is clear these two are meant for each other.

There are other stories set in this world as well, including The Privilege of the Sword (2006), which is a YA about Alec’s niece, who is sent to live with him. Once you’ve read Swordspoint, you’ll see why that won’t go anything at all like she expects. She has also written Thomas the Rhymer (1990), which is a retelling of the folktale.

Although there is sword-fighting in Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword, this isn’t an action / adventure story, but, as it is still utterly marvelous and one of my favorite books. There is also an audio version, that is an ensemble recording arranged with help by Neil Gaiman.


The Eye of the Hunter(1992) Dennis L. McKiernan (Mithgar)

Dennis McKiernan said he wrote his first book when he was laid up and couldn’t find a book he wanted to read, so ended up writing his own tales, which started with The Dark Tide(1984).

The Mithgar stories are interwoven and connected, but no series within contains more than three books, and most are stand-alone books, all of which can be read in any order.

There are characters that occur across the series, primarily long-lived elves, but for the most part each book or series is a story arc of something important that happened in the history of Mithgar.

Eye of the Hunter is a very good starting point. It’s a single book (albeit a long book) that ranges all over Mithgar as the heroes attempt to find and destroy an evil baron.

If that doesn’t strike your fancy, then you could try Voyage of the Fox Rider (1993), which is about a fox-rider searching for her lost mate. Or you could pick up the anthology Tales of Mithgar (1994).

These books remind me of going to the bookstore, scanning the shelves, and delightedly finding a new book. Sometimes the books weren’t very good, but often they were just what I was in the mood for, which is what these books were.


Guards! Guards!(1989) Terry Pratchett (Discworld)

On the off chance that you have not read any Terry Pratchett, this is me putting you on notice.

You must read Discworld books.

But don’t start with the first book. Or the second. Those two books have my least-favorite character, Rincewind. If I’d come across those books first (instead of later books) I might never have read the rest of the series, and that would be a terrible loss.

There are several characters that appear in multiple books, and you should probably read the books in those story arcs in order. But you don’t have to. Those arcs are the Witches, starting with Equal Rites (1987); DEATH, starting with Mort (1987); the Ankh-Morpork books, starting with The Truth(2000). And the kid’s books. And the YA books.

But best of all, there are the Night Watch books, starting with  Guards! Guards!

These books are hilarious, but they are also chock-full of biting social commentary.

They avoided one another’s faces, for fear of what they might see mirrored there. Each man thought: one of the others is bound to say something soon, some protest, and then I’ll murmur agreement, not actually say anything, I’m not as stupid as that, but definitely murmur very firmly, so that the others will be in no doubt that I thoroughly disapprove, because at a time like this it behooves all decent men to stand up and be almost heard…
But no-one said anything. The cowards, each man thought.

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of okay for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. These were the kinds of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years time, when a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness.

It wasn’t just that the city was lawless. It had plenty of laws. It just didn’t offer many opportunities not to break them.

But don’t think it’s all social commentary. Mostly its all hilarious.

(T)here were two good signs of a good alchemist: the Athletic and the Intellectual. A good alchemist of the first sort was someone who could leap over the bench and be on the far side of a safely thick wall in three seconds, and a good alchemist of the second sort was someone who knew exactly when to do this.

AND there is The Librarian.

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.



The Initiate Brother (1991) Sean Russell

I keep waiting for this book and its sequel Gatherer of Clouds (1992), to go on sale as ebooks, but not joy so far. Which is too bad because I would really love to re-read these.

The books have strong overtones of China and Japan, the land is quite clearly neither. A young monk makes his way in the world, and becomes an advisor of a great lord.

The story is full of religious and political intrigue, and a tiny bit of romance, but mostly a marvelous story.

He has also written several other fantasies, most of which are duologies or a trilogy. One duology, World Without End (1994) and Sea Without a Shore (1996), I particularly love because its main character is a naturalist on a sea voyage—much like Charles Darwin did in our world.

These are not sword & sorcery books, but they are marvelous.


Thieves’ World

If you’re looking for something horrible to make your life seem better by comparison, then Thieves World is the series you are looking for.

Here is a bit that I’ve always loved. A tourism document from the Sanctuary Chamber of Commerce.

Sanctuary Vacation Capital of the Rankan Empire Every year tourists flock to Sanctuary by the tens, drawn by the rumors of adventure and excitement which flourish in every dark corner of the empire. They are never disappointed that they chose Sanctuary. Our city is everything it is rumored to be— and more! Many visitors never leave and those that do can testify that the lives to which they return seem dull in comparison with the heart-stopping action they found in this personable town.

Social Status— Let’s face it: everybody likes to feel superior to somebody. Well, nowhere is superiority as easy to come by as it is in Sanctuary. A Rankan citizen of moderate means is a wealthy man by Sanctuary standards, and will be treated as such by its inhabitants. Envious eyes will follow your passing and people will note your movements and customs with flattering attentiveness. Even if your funds are less than adequate in your own opinion, it is still easy to feel that you are better off than the average citizen of Sanctuary— if only on a moral scale. We can guarantee, without reservation, that however low your opinion of yourself might be, there will be somebody in Sanctuary you will be superior to.

A Word About Crime— You have probably heard rumors of the high crime rate in Sanctuary. We admit to having had our problems in the past, but that’s behind us now. One need only look at the huge crowds that gather to watch the daily hangings and impalements to realize that the support of the citizens of Sanctuary for law and order is at an all-time high. As a result of the new governor’s anticrime program, we are pleased to announce that last year the rate of reported crime, per day, in Sanctuary was not greater than that of cities twice our size.


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